The Cailleach’s hammer

Just as January became February thunder and lightning swept through the mountains. A final furious berating by Beira, the Cailleach, Queen of Winter? I very much doubt it. Winters here have a habit of returning in brutal, fast-moving surges, always fighting the return of spring.

January has come and gone with ‘hare and tortoise’ changes of speed. Time has both stood still and galloped away. I am blaming covid. As the new year began, I was finally caught; my whole family were. As someone who shielded for two years until the Scottish programme was effectively ended, I had been anxious about its effect on my immune system, a system already compromised, and anxious too, for the children and their little ones. They (we) have all been so careful, but clearly not careful enough.

We went south for Christmas and New Year, for a long-awaited family gathering, all of us testing before our journeys began, all virus-free, testing again during our time together. Quite how the virus found us, we are still not sure. We had been together for almost two weeks when it struck, all starting with symptoms within a day or two of each other. Presumably the same source infected us all. From the youngest at eight months to the eldest, attacks came in different ways and with differing degrees of severity. Soon it began to feel wickedly personal, as if the virus had specific business with each one of us, with deliberate and targeted impacts on our bodies. Some recovered quickly, some of us are even now struggling with coughs, aches and pains.

I think illness, wrapped up with concern and nursing, warped time. At our worst, we helped look after small ones at their worst, while parents struggled to deal with their own symptoms and lack of sleep. The days lengthened and shrank in peculiar drifts, passing very slowly then incredibly quickly. As we started to feel better, in some unspoken way we began to recognise the need for space and a gentle return to ‘normal’. So we came home, avoiding human contact, masked and apprehensive, still feeling dreadful, guilty leaving the youngsters behind.

Once here, recovery stalled. We tried to get on with work on the croft, but I could only manage short walks with the dog. Their purpose was to gulp down the fresh Highland air; I desperately wanted it. I watched the sea from my favourite small space at the top of the cliff.

My first sight of the sea after covid fever dreams was a blessing. Such strange, otherworldly colours, the lines of light and thick drenches of cloud. I let snow clouds rush past, gusts of cold wind wrap around my body, and salted ice settle on my cheeks and eyelashes.  When stillness came, biting frost seared my cheeks and bursts of light warmed my back. There is healing to be had even in the harshest weather, in the stark glare of a fierce winter sun. I love it all.

Squalls flew towards us over the Minch with thunder hanging on their coattails; others ran through the mountains with bright frills of ice-white around their deep purple hearts. On several dark days, the only light came from within high tumults of cloud and a sea shivering in arctic blues, from white foaming waves cresting the shore and the wings of geese as they flew over the croft. As wind speeds increased, the storm clouds shredded then coalesced; mountains appeared then vanished. Biting cold filled every nook and cranny, wrangling into the house.

Often the dark grey roof-slate skies rippled with strange granular light while pinprick beams of pale yellow struggled to reach the valley. We tumbled through those days, washed, rinsed and blown dry. We alternated between feeling good then a few short hours later, wanting desperately to sleep. Strange effects on both body and mind, temporal shifts, strange tastes and scents in the air. Recovery then relapse, in time with the storm winds and flickering light.

Bursts of sudden calm restored us. We felt ready for action, happy to get on with the business of preparing the croft for spring, blessed by blissfully blue gold and silver mornings. The gentle air breathed in time with the sea, and I forced my own breaths to match the deep pull of cold air and long sigh of release.

But after each spell of glacial calm, beyond their sunsets of red and orange, we watched sooty smudges and smears of high distant cloud, warning of wilder weather gathering again over the Atlantic.

One day the Outer Hebrides and Skye completely vanished. The Minch was covered by bling, fragments of precious jewels thrown across the green sea, skittering about and flashing brightly, the turbulent glittery sea in stark contrast to the dull sepia and rust of our fields and surrounding bogland.

During the last week of January squalls clustered together as storms. Nameless, violent January storms. With every one, great clouds lifted high overhead, ink-blue and murderous, then dissipated in tufts and fluffs of dirty cotton. Snow-melt and torrential rains filled the burns. As they ran in spate, they re-sculpted the beach, meeting and fighting with cacophonies of waves. The Red River spilled out over the croft. The ground squelched and leaked black water with every step. But gradually, ever so slowly, each new bunch of storm clouds also carried brief hugs of warmth and light. Now the light is more than a ghost, it has heft.

Then, on January 26, in unison with a spell of rainbow coloured calm and waters still enough to be written upon by breaths of air flowing from croft to sea, song thrushes began to sing, their voices lifting around the croft, so full of life and joy and determination, they made me cry. I think I was crying with relief, at the thought of winter passing and hints of spring. I wept too for all the losses, not just the wilder creatures lost in storms but for those lost to covid. Since the virus struck my family I have constantly talked about how lucky we all were, how blessed. The wildness of the weather is also humbling; it is not only the pandemic causing damage, but shifting patterns in nature, the intensification of storms, their increasing frequency. We are all bound up together, nature, weather, people, place.

There is much to be hopeful for too. Although the croft is still drenched and sodden after all the snow and rain, here and there, next to small rocks are piles of snail shells, song thrush kitchens, evidence of very busy lives. There is otter spraint on the riverbank by the old silver birches and in sheltered spots, small groups of flies briefly glitter as they dance. The return of life is a promise held in lemon yellow beams of sunlight and crevices of almost-warmth.

The thrushes sang strongly through the latest big storm, this end-of-the-month unnamed storm that roared in over a sea made of azurite and malachite, and is still blowing hard.

I do not know if the thunder woke the wildlife at midnight on January 31st, but as I got up and looked out at the dark, I saw the Cailleach’s hammer glinting as she smote the hills. She will not give up so easily; she is not finished with us yet. There is more wild weather to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

To the Winter Solstice

Snow lies on the mountains and until the sun rises over Maol Ruadh, the low dark red-brown hill bordering our valley, they are all pink and purple and dusky rose. On the peaks of Torridon, after a few days of wintry showers, the drifts will be deep, the white dazzling.

The ground is shrink-wrapped. Everything has hunkered down or huddled together. Around the croft are patches of ice, frozen hail and thin drifts of snow. We rarely get a complete covering of snow so close to the sea; here, there is always a breeze laden with salt. But just occasionally the Arctic comes to South Erradale. For a few days ice has rimed the grasses and rushes and mounds of dung in the meadows. Only heathers and bog myrtle are free of frost and snow. Caught in the morning light, myrtle glows rusty red. It sings to me, and I feel compelled to gather a few buds and scratch them to release the tightly enfolded perfume. There. Breathe in deeply. The living world in incense.

Recent weather has been both brutal and benign. Snow squalls riding on the Cailleach’s storm coat-tails steal the light and run away with warmth. Beira, Queen of Winter, the Cailleach, rides her wolf across the skies, bringing tumult and fierce cold. Her storm clouds are wolf-pelt grey and tangled.

Standing at my favourite go-to place – an old strainer post at the cliff’s edge near my home who’s gnarled wood offers scant protection from winds so cold my eyes ache – I have watched sunset skies blaze with the colours of heat and fire and furnace. Then in small pockets of shelter on the croft or local beach, I have whipped off my wooly hat in sunlight so bright and warm it has made the ground steam.

Over the last 48 hours winds have been running swiftly down the Minch. Nor’easterlies and northerlies are cruel. They delight in finding our weak spots; they trick and tease us, bringing bright white light one minute and coal-dust dark the next. There have been sunsets mottled with orange and turquoise, and sunrises of blood-red and purple. Red sky at night, red sky in the morning – Beira has been toying with us.

On Sunday, the first day of bitter cold and bright sunshine, we drove to Applecross, to see the Bealach na Bà without regiments of tourists. It was minus 9 at the top of the pass. My legs struggled to get going but I laughed with excitement at the wind and filled up with joy at the views. From the nearby summit a full panoply of peaks and mountain ranges opened. A grandiflora rose in full bloom, landskein and layers for petals.

Since then, in between jobs on the croft and Christmas preparations, we have wandered back and forth to our local beaches, snatching the dwindling hours of daylight whenever possible. Colour has come and gone, stolen by drifts of light and the pull of competing darknesses. Once, for a few calm hours at low tide, Opinan’s peach sands were decorated with symbols and shapes, where waves and sediments carefully measured and crafted repeating patterns, or drew strange organic structures – trees and roots and creatures from other worlds.

When winds turn to the north, the whole character of the sea changes. Colour, sound, the way it moves, what it does to the little beach. The relationship between the north wind and our coast is feistier, more so than wind from any other direction. Waves generated by northerlies are filled with noise and energy, they are tall and strong, broad and long, and generate mists and spume. Even if the winds themselves fade the sea contains such latent power the waves continue, darkly green and luminous, booming and resonating.

During these winter days, the croft settles itself into slumber. In such drenching cold, the living turf closes in on itself. Life has been absorbed back into the soil, and now the cold itself acts as a blanket, tucking in all the loose odds and ends and smoothing out the surface. Although it looks severe, this tightening and shrinkage will protect the earth against further extreme cold or intense rains and wind, and will keep vital carbon locked in. There are many places around the valley and beyond where the protective envelop of green has been lost. When heavy rains return, soil will be washed into the sea, and lost for good.

Three young Welsh mountain ponies are staying with us for a couple of weeks. They have a small section of croft to nibble at and the old byre for shelter. I pulled open a small bundle of their hay and the scent of summer poured out. I tried not let my mind run forward to haymaking, to the abundances of summer. Under our feet this year’s seeds lie, buried in darkness and frozen, but they are the golden source of next summer’s hay. Even with all this reduction and freezing and lack of colour, the promise of renewal is there, all wrapped up.

This mountainous part of the country possesses the ability to alter time and perspective. Our days shorten swiftly and vigorously. The winter solstice approaches. Christmas is coming.  As I write, official sunrise at this latitude is 08.55 but the sun does not actually breach the hills for another thirty minutes. When it comes, there is a fanfare of golden light. While we wait, the croft fills with pale lavender light and dark purple shadows, and the Red River runs blue.

The sun sets beyond the Old Man of Storr on the Trotternish peninsula of Skye, some fifteen minutes before its appointed time. On good weather days the great peaks of Skye are bathed in all the colours of a rainbow and the sea gathers the last rays of light. At other times, shafts and beams of pale gold may be sifted out of the darkest denim blues and plum-jam coloured sea. And on a clear day, all the hills reflect the heavens and seem to be made of glass, pure blue Murano glass.

This is a dynamic, turbulent and wickedly playful time of the year, no more so than when great squalls and snowstorms sprint through the gap between the Outer Isles and mainland and sweep past us.

They drag the light with them. They radiate light from within. They shine as if made of glitter and tinsel and Christmas baubles. They dance; they writhe. This is the kind of weather I truly love – great fistfuls of billowing storm clouds and fighting, snarling showers. But with myrtle buds in one hand and a scoop of frost in the other, I am ready for the shortest days of the year.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

Light from the dark

There is a point on a journey home when the sense of homecoming is physically palpable and so strong you exhale slowly and deeply because you feel you have in fact already arrived.

For me, there is one such place at the head of Glen Docherty, where the A832 crosses the watershed between two great basins, one containing Loch Maree, the other, Loch a’ Chroisg. This is a special transition, from east to west, from light to dark, from considerable age to deep time, from a former life into the magic of a new one. Even though there is another 25 miles or so to South Erradale, I am struck by the same visceral sense of having stepped through a portal every single time we pass over the 200m col and begin our descent into the Glen.

Here, the sharpness of eastern light metamorphoses into the gentle illumination of the west. Here, the whole valley, grand and long enough to hold the 14 miles of Loch Maree, directs my eye away from mighty summits on either side to the source of the light I know is there – the distant sea. There is always a hint of pale turquoise or silver or the seep of sunset gold born from air that has travelled across an ocean.

The moment of crossing is joyous. I feel bathed in the romance of the west and its gorgeous light. I sense home. I feel at home.

There’s more. At this point the landforms and landscape transfigure. We pass over rock strata that are ancient (the Moine Schists more than 500 million years old) onto geology that defines this part of Wester Ross, rocks old beyond imagining including the Torridonian sandstones (1-2 billion years) and Lewisian Gneiss (2-3 billion years). The road crossing the col into Glen Docherty takes us from the relatively young into the Archaean, up and over the evidence of tremendous tectonic upheaval geology has named the Moine Thrust.

The softer mountain landscapes to the east are beautiful but these mountains in the west to me seem crafted by fantasy. Their pinnacles and spires and saw-toothed tortured turrets are superb, their grand shapes and forms universally recognised. Combined with the special light of the west this land passes from remarkable to superlative. And I cannot help but deeply feel the shifting and transitioning of not only light, but of the earth herself.

Most bare rock looks grey or brown, weathered and chemically altered by algae and bacteria, mosses and lichens, plant roots, by time spent under soil or water. Many boulders and exposures are covered by lichen in patchwork colours. Only when we break open a rock can we see the truth – Torridonian sandstones may be peach or purple or crimson, gneiss can be rich deep green or burgundy, its quartz veins anything from white to rose to orange. Weathered ancient rock influences our perceptions of light and a landscape’s hues, possibly even our attitude to landscape, after all, many great peaks are named for their colours as well as their topography.  And yet newly exposed rock releases the light and colours of earth’s remote past; they reveal the geographical processes of the Archaean and the environmental conditions in which these sediments were formed. For me, this is sensational. As we cross the Glen Docherty threshold, all such thoughts crowd in but as the west falls open before us, the magic begins.

Of course, the view down the Glen today would not be quite so colourful. There is a November hoolie blowing as I write. Typical late autumn weather. Through my attic window great sheets of white billow across the bogland opposite the house. The sloping valley sides are invisible behind curtains of rain. From the opposite window, I can see the Red River running through the croft, its turbulence is dark, metallic, and unwholesome. The river’s race westwards has the power to swallow anything and everything and spit it out into the sea.

On days like this it can be hard to remember the bright light of summer or the delicious colours of fresh cut rock. The heavy dark blanket dampens spirits. Water pours over and around boulders and rocky slabs until they darken to coal-black. Yet there is still light within these Atlantic lows. They can turn the skies and sea into cascades of blues and greys, in tones and hues of every conceivable type. Everywhere one looks there is motion and changing colour.

The light of the west, even under storm skies, is special. It jostles with rushing clouds and fights with torrential rains, growing and swelling where least expected. Light emanates from rock and sea and plant life and moving water. Features are transformed by transient darknesses, our perceptions of shape and form are altered. Light swells and pulses in different ways, and drags our moods along for the ride.

Over the last few weeks the autumn winds have been deepening and strengthening. By the shore waves are taller and bring spindrift and sea-salted caramel-coloured froth to the beach. Sands are piled high then dragged away. Under fast-moving skies spells of sunlight are supercharged then cloud cover darkens to midnight-blue. Across the Minch the Outer Isles simmer in hot orange then squid ink black. The flicker-flitter of light and dark is testament to the speed of changing weather.

Today’s gusts are noisy and the rain biblical. This is the second day of awful weather but there could be worse to come over the winter. It is too early for the big storms, I say to myself. But a corner of my mind whispers perhaps not. Everything is changing. Everything has changed since the pandemic. This place is in flux. The weather is having hot menopausal flushes and temper tantrums. I am not certain what to expect this winter.

Yet even when we drive over Glen Docherty on such as day as this, while silently and internally marvelling at the geology, I can only exhale loudly and laugh in astonishment again, for the magic of the west is still visible, over there, in the distance, calling me home.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Moonlight and puddle suits

Family flew to us under the glow of a full moon, with noise and laughter and the special light small children bring. That moon, September’s Harvest moon, rising over the Torridon mountains, spilled pale gold all around the Erradale valley. The croft shimmered with mist; the river poured songs into the sea. As the grandchildren settled down to sleep under the watchful gaze of moon and me, I felt a low vibration – a single bellow from a stag? No, too early for the rut in our valley. Instead, perhaps a brief echo of some other voice, one more distant, higher, upriver, calling for company under the magic and clarity of moonlight. It must have been my imagination. With small children in the house there’s playtime, bedtime stories, dressing up and adventures, lots of adventures. We need a lot of energy and a lot of imagination.

By and large, the golden light and warmth of Septembers-past did not materialise, at least not to any significant degree. The weather pulled us this way and that, clouds rushed in, fomented by scurrying winds. Our smaller visitors wore wellies and ‘puddle suits’, woolly hats and hoods. Yet even the smallest – four months old – wrapped tightly against his mother’s body, eyes peeking from behind a thick cocoon of padded swaddling, came out to enjoy the blustery weather. The oldest, soon to be three, rampaged about in waterproof gear that made me envious. Like her, I would have screamed to be told we must leave the beach if I’d been as warm and dry inside a bright blue puddle suit decorated with yellow suns and moons and rainbows.

For the most part, no matter what the weather, there were big smiles all round. They are my grandchildren for sure; storm-chasers, wind-lovers, wave-defying sea-squealers, sand-castle-builders. Even the smallest beamed his delight at the crashing waves and his older sister’s bunny-hopping welly-booted rampage over sandy castle ramparts. This is where the light comes from when you need it most – unlooked-for directions, unexpected places, from eyes lit up with joy, toddler shrieks and baby gurgles on an empty, windswept beach.

There have been other visitors. A young cow and her very young calf who should have been joined by others but for a post-natal disaster which upset the young crofters badly. But this new mother wandered about happily doing exactly what she and the croft needed. As her calf grew, mum was happy to leave her baby lying in the long grass or dense thickets of alder in much the same way deer leave their fauns, hidden from prying eyes and safe. Then came our neighbour’s sheep and, for the last two weeks, a gaggle of Highland ponies. Together they come to ‘aftermath’ graze, to nibble and cut the sward where the Mackenzie boys’ tractor, cutting and baling gear could not reach. The animals graze and browse in different ways and with different impacts. They help disperse the last seeds and tidy up the straggles of uncut wildflowers and tall grasses; and they distribute a light dressing of manure, overwintering homes to dung beetles and food for other organisms. Poo is a prize worth having for the benefits dung beetles bring to our soil, the sward and other wildlife.

The sun did appear eventually. We had a few days of real beach holiday weather with no need of puddle suits. While we paddled and gathered shells and picnicked on the beach, the Highland ponies lay full length on the topmost banks in the full midday sun, snoring.

The colours of autumn are deepening now. The shoreline is draped with orange, sienna and titian – great mounds of kelp thrown ashore in these first hard gales of the season. Bogland grasses are glowing with shiny copper threads – moor and deer grasses rusting before our eyes. Across the croft any remaining uncut swathes of grass are paling to blonde and along the riverbank the leaves of birch and alder are turning to lemon-yellow. Crowds and gangs of small birds sweep back and forth. Goldfinches I know from their chattering songs, meadow pipits too, but there are other boisterous little birds I cannot identify.

Everything is in flux spurred on by the windy, shouty squalls. The Highland ponies were jittery on one particularly windy day. The gusts ruffled their manes and tails, thunder and lightning sent them careening about, skittering up and down the river banks and splashing through the wet hollows. It’s all good stuff. This little bit of mayhem will turn over the ground here and there, and provide opportunities for new blooms next summer. Hooves will churn new hollows for insects, teeth will trim new shapes into the gorse and mow the long swathes of grass where we cannot even use a scythe.            

They are clever creatures, these Highlanders. Like the old, much smaller Shetland ponies that died just a few years ago, they read the wind and note the oncoming turbulence, manoeuvring into sheltered nooks and crannies so their longs tails and longer manes wrap their bodies in an extra layer. Apart from when lightning bounces up and down the valley.

Our little ones are gone now. The days have shortened and the house is quiet. Autumn winds are strengthening, waves are taller, the intermittent spells of light and dark under fast-moving skies bring spindrift and sea-salted caramel-coloured froth to the beach.

Bog pools are filling up with black water, the Red River runs hard and loud and fast down to the sea. Debris gets caught in the gorse and trees along the riverbanks. Spells of sunlight are supercharged; cloud cover darkens to midnight-blue. It is too early for the big storms, I say to myself, and yet, and yet. Across the Minch the Outer Isles hover in hot orange then squid ink black.

Now they are here, these supercharged squalls. Racing in with noise and bluster and fierce light, trying to outdo the almost-full Hunter’s (and Dying Grass) moon.

If there is any chance of seeing a clear night sky in this latest spell of wild weather, it is fleeting. But there is moonlight and stardust enough for us all in the dappled silver coats of the Highland ponies.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Dreams of Hay

I often dream of hay making. There is a large horse pulling a raking machine. Dust rises in tight golden swirls. It is hot. My hand clutches an apple, half for the horse, half for me. The anticipation of its crisp sweet juiciness is strong. I call out, trying to make myself heard above the clatter. The dream shifts. Horse and machinery have disappeared. I look down at the apple in my hand. Pale gold light, filled with seeds and insects and swooping birds, envelops everything.

Hay was harvested here last week in dream-like golden conditions. During the first continuous set of bright dry days since June, and with a forecast of several rain-free days, our Highland meadows were cut, dried and baled.

Three brothers, young crofters from a nearby ‘crofting township’, came to make hay while the sun shone. After a long cold wet spring and mostly cool grey damp summer we were anxious about when or even if the meadows would be ready. Even those cutting for silage (a preferential crop around here more often than not) delayed their harvest by more than a month simply because growth had slowed in the low temperatures and pitifully few hours of sunlight. In sharp contrast to the south’s heat and drought we have been hampered by brow-beating gloom.

But the return of warmth and bright clear skies prompted a sudden resurgence of growth – flowers blooming brightly and dense sappy green grasses. The sward thickened and grew tall before our eyes.

Each year my notebook records a succession of flowers from orchids in May to small species such as milkwort pin-pricking the low-growing turf in June, on to the blowsy blooms of parsley, angelica and yarrow in July and the last dense and aromatic rush and surge of August. But this year, once the orchids had died away, and although yellow rattle stuck to its allotted time of flowering and seed-setting, normal ‘rules’ did not seem to apply. Flowering was a rough and tumble flurry of unexpected appearances.

New species arrived – one, a grass more common in the hills (Viviparious sheep’s fescue) – while others spread from a small number of individuals found here in previous years – yellow kidney vetches, marsh gentian, lady’s bedstraw, meadowsweet. Like rattle, Devil’s bit scabious burst into flower on time in a broad hazy sweep of purple and blue. Scabious is a way-marker to autumn, resolutely telling us the seasons are changing. And yet still the species of high summer – chamomiles, sneezewort, sweet vernal grass, ragged robin, plantains, small varieties of thistle and knapweeds – continued to flower. 

We hoped for a spell of at least four days of dry warmth. We studied on our weather apps then looked to the skies. The long wait for grasses and flowers to set seed, something silage-making does not generally do, is a major factor in traditional hay-making, but it is weather dependent. A few dry days are vital.

As meadows mature, seeds drop and replenish the soil’s seed ‘bank’. Without this bank, nature’s own way of ensuring species survival, we would eventually lose more than we can possibly imagine. Soil is the supply vault, the stock room containing next year’s blooms, and the next, and for years into the future. A good soil bank saves the cost of reseeding and prevents the gradual disappearance of wildflowers, grasses and sedges from our landscapes. Ultimately the power to halt the slow decline in populations of invertebrates and birds lies within the soil.

Science and tradition aside, there is another reason for hay – my head and heart feel compelled to manage our land in this way, drawn by the indecipherable communion of plant and soil and wildlife with shared family history and memory. And dreams of hay. This small place owns me, not the other way round. I am a temporary custodian.

There is the river too. Its music, her music, is a long conversation between hill, croft and sea, between water, land and me. The meadows are split by thousands of years of her wandering, shaped by a long post-glacial history and complex geomorphology. This river has a particular song and distinctive purpose – renewal, replenishment – she brings silts and nutrients to the lower fields in floods. Soil is her partner, her dependent. Both are vital to croft, to meadows, and to hay.

This year there are more types of flowering plants than ever. Growth in late August is tall, dense, thick. Biomass and biodiversity hand-in-hand. There are more insects too, their bodies dancing, wings flickering, all droning and buzzing. The vegetation is so dense walking through the uncut meadows is a slow swim through treacle and anticipation.

So, the work begins in this small valley under the shadow of high blue mountains next to a lively sea. These haymaking days are kind – dry and warm. Young crofters, old machinery, me; we are wrapped up together in the scents of cut grass and flowers. Yellow sky, honey coloured air cloudy with seeds, insects and swooping birds. Vanilla buttercream, salted caramel and freshly baked cupcakes.

The cut hay is raked up into long curving lines, windrows to aid drying, contours of effort. Each day the boys return to scatter and rake, turning over the hay to aid its drying. In between the paling golden rows dragonflies arrive in convoys and settle in battle groups, lured by mysterious forces. “It’s the perfume of hay,” I say, “That’s what they’ve come for. They must smell it!” The boys laugh. Insects have no sense of smell, the internet says. I ask an entomologist who emails a new bit of research to read. And there it is. Observation and experimentation have shown dragonflies have a sense of smell and use aromas to hunt prey. Tiny clusters of cells at the base of their antennae contain olfactory neurons and emit nerve pulses. Ha! They can detect odours.

Are the dragonflies attracted by the smell of coumarin, the compound giving scented plants such as lady’s bedstraw and sweet vernal grass their beautiful perfume, the stuff that fills the air around our valley, the stuff that is the very essence of newly drying hay? And is this because they have learned that hay cutting provides lots of prey? While the tractor and cutter worked, clouds of craneflies, grasshoppers, moths, spiders, and all kinds of smaller insects rise and move away from the deep vibrations and noise of machinery. Food for dragonflies, food for the descending throngs of small birds.

I walk through the croft after yet another turning over of the windrows, the air is the colour of honey but it is dusty, seed and insect-filled, almost cloudy. Overhead the sky is pale gold, almost the same colour as the hay at my feet. It is almost my dreamscape.

On day four, the ancient baler, restored, follows the old Massey Ferguson tractor, a small and nimble vehicle, perfect for our misshapen meadows. Most crofts here are five-acre squares but the Red River bisects ours, there are burns and deep ditches, peat banks and high river terraces, remnants of a 5000-year-old landscape. There are no simple squares or rectangles, only curves and complexity. This old machine, sounding as though it has a beating heart, copes well with the twisting and turning, manoeuvring around old stone-edged springs, river meanders, byre and ditches. It heaves out long rectangular bundles of summer. These bales will carry August right through the winter.

I feel such deep joy, caught as I am in a web woven by river, meadows, plants and wildlife. Successful haymaking is the measure of how well these bonds are coping in a rapidly changing world. Hay is my reward for loving this place. It is as precious as gold.

I’m caught too, by the shared history, with the people whose families have harvested hay or grazed this land for hundreds of years. A story of land lost and left behind, of removal and transfer, a sister story to that of Highland clearances. And a shared agricultural history, a Lancashire grandfather who farmed in traditional ways, who also preferred hay to silage.

Even after so many days, scents follow the light and pour into the house through open doors and windows. They carry memories, thoughts and feelings, stories of Ireland and North-West England as well as Scotland. They too will be baled and stored to keep me going over winter.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Hidden jewels under a bright late summer sky

Beneath the speckled white quartzite summits of Beinn Eighe and not quite hidden from the imperious grey frown of Liathath are twins – two small lochs, sitting in communion with the high peaks, yet sheltering among ancient pines, birch-rowan woodlands, and boggy moorland.

On the day of our visit the lochs appear bejewelled even from the small car parking space. We start late, having missed the ‘golden hour’ by a long way, but in midday brightness, the waters reflect the sun in myriad fractals of light and colour.  A narrow road leads away from the Torridon ‘motor-way’ into a grand yet secluded glacier- and river- carved bowl, the heart of the Coulin Estate. This walk, into the hidden valley, a mere stroll for the fit and regular walker, is my first adventure away from the home, crofts, and coast I love so much. The latter have been and will continue to be places of recovery and physiotherapy, where muscles and strength, all laid so very low, are gradually being restored. My body is remembering how to do things. Walk, breathe deeply.

On either side of the rough tarmac road running straight down to a wooden bridge are dense drifts of heather and myrtle, purple-moor and deer grasses, thick clumps of moss and lichen. The heath is close-packed, aromatic, and colourful – mauves, pinks and greens, the latter tipped now with shining copper. It feels easy walking between walls of perfume. I am held upright by potent intoxicating scents and a brightly coloured breeze running in from the east. As I concentrate on how my legs are moving, I’m astonished to see Butterworts, flowerless this late in the summer, lining the route, growing on the edges of the tarmac. Starfish guards of honour.

The road turns away from Liathach and Eighe and hugs the edges of Loch Clair. Open water is ruffled by wind and stippled by light but close to the shore it is dark and smooth. Birch trees replace the heathers. On my right a steep drop to the loch, on my left an even steeper rise through birch and rowan. Trees cling to rock faces, their roots entering the ‘underland’ as arms, hands, snakes and thick hawsers. Here and there are mounded cushions of ruby red Sphagnum moss so richly coloured and so soft they would grace the knees of royalty.

Birch trees wear dancing petticoats of lime green, rowans are splattered by clusters of crimson berries; their colours are more fierce next to the bright turquoise sky. Butterflies skitter and flutter in front of our bodies as we push the warm afternoon air before us – I am uncertain of the name of those with dark brown almost black and magenta wings. There are small pale cream moths and tiny orange butterflies skipping through clumps of heather and bilberry. And in sun-lit patches of bracken, an occasional single frond of copper amongst the greenery points the way to autumn.

The shallow waters between the twins are fringed with Potamageton pond weeds and decorated with braids of water lilies and frills of reeds where currents move more slowly. At this time of year, the variety of form and colour of these specialist water-loving plants is wonderful. They have very specific physical requirements for growth – different water depths, speed of water movement, nutrient requirements, pH – and they respond to subtle variations across each loch by growing in arcs and curlicues and drifts of green. The strange motifs and glyphs outlined by lilies and reeds tell of hidden underwater byways and secret worlds, a narrow magical green space of plenty between Clair and Coulin.

On the opposite bank young trees are spreading upslope towards the summit of Sgùrr Dubh. Seen from the loch-side this mountain is pyramidal, all grey and salmon-pink screes and bare rock with sweeps of vivid green. We stop under the canopy of an enormous pine. The girth of its trunk is almost two metres. The dappled, sweet resinous shade carries the breeze so midges cannot find us. We sit and watch the water and mountain beyond. From this vantage point Sgùrr Dubh wears a frilly frock of deep, dark green – grand, old open woodlands of Scots pine – and underskirts of bright lemon and lime. There is so much plant life here the hillsides seem to dance with it all. 

We move on. The warmth has turned to heat and we emerge from the shade of trees onto a rough path. There are dragonflies everywhere, more species than I’ve seen on the croft. Some are hand sized and rumble along as noisily as helicopters, others are small, no longer than my little finger. They dart back and forth, zipping in front of us as we walk. Bright crimson damsels favour the open sunshine where there is bog on one side and woodland on the other. Emerald and turquoise dragonflies seen to prefer more open country. The large helicopters zoom everywhere. I give up counting them.

Soon the path emerges into the wilder wide-open basin beyond Loch Coulin. Somewhere in the dazzling light across the loch there is the old route to Lochcarron. Immediately before us is a tall metal gate, attached to nothing but the ground, fences long gone. It must have been a grand barrier with such a well-made metal gate, built to contain deer. Now the small footpath wiggles around it. No-one wishes to go through. From one side the gate reframes distant Liathach, from the other it points to the remains of an old settlement almost lost under bracken and heather. Together, they are remnants of very different histories. The house (bigger than a sheiling), byre and walls are the remains of a once busy place cleared of its people, their land enclosed for deer and sheep. The tall gate would have been part of the deer containment of estate or estates whose management must also have changed, for there are other fences, other gates in different places now. The poignancy of their juxtaposition sits heavily in the afternoon sun. Gates, fences. Homes, walls. All enclosures fail eventually.

We turn away from whispers of sorrow lingering in the air. Dragonflies are droning and dancing again. The wind has shifted a little. I am aware of how dense the heather is, how heavy its perfume again, and how thick and sweet the smell of bracken. The light has changed too. There is a golden glow, a slight haze telling me autumn, even on this oh-so-bright afternoon, is coming.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Summer, flying.

A purple haze smears the edge of vision. Signals of deep changes accompanying the shorter days are evident now in the slow but discernible shifting from fierce greens and brightly coloured flowers of high summer to leaves of olive and gold and blooms of mauve, lavender and purple.

The hills, moorland and bogs surrounding south erradale are bruising. The callunetum is in flower and its effect is powerful. The Scottish Highland landscape is transforming.

On quiet windless days, the air feels thick; each inward breath is suffused with perfume. Bees drone in rising scents of ling and bell heather. The sound is more than a backdrop to life here, it becomes an aromatic prop to thought and reason. But such conditions never last long in these coastal margins. Wind rules this place. As soon as sea breezes pick up, the powerful and distinctive headiness of heather is lost, merging with other scents – bog myrtle and dog rose, salt and seaweed.

Our summer has been very grey – dull, wet, and windy days silvered with light from time to time. Odd bright summery spells, a few hours here or a day or two there, have pinged into life but they lacked the warmth of true summer. Thankfully, we were spared the pitiless heat of England’s extreme weather. For most of our family’s visits, the grandchildren have worn puddle-suits and wellies.

Nothing stifles the exuberance of children at play, not even a cold wind and grey-green showers. Their determination to run to the sea and scramble over rocks or dig in sand is unstoppable save for the need to eat and drink. Each visit with two or more of our growing clan of grandchildren has involved lengthy spells of castle building, canals and dams, stone sorting, shell gathering and simply running through the wild and boisterous space of the nearby beach. Joy unfettered; adventures in mind and body; no heat needed. In the space of a single summer, I have watched the children grow in confidence, agility and ability. Just like our meadows they have reached for the sun and wind and rain and filled themselves full of life and light. The same power sources feeding the growing biomass, have fed the children.

This year’s ultra-cold and wet spring followed by a cool damp summer delayed maturation in the flood meadows we manage for hay. Even those crofting for silage were forced to cut more than a month late. Despite the poor weather, on Red River Croft (comprised of two 5-acre fields known here as crofts) growth has been dense and thick, biodiversity unaffected (as far as I can tell) and after a slow start, they are now luxuriant.

Around the field margins, along riverbanks and ditches, a late blooming of wildflowers has been profuse and riotous.

The meadows are perhaps a couple of weeks away from cutting. Most of the grasses and sedges have set and are dropping seeds but many early summer species are still in flower, and along with species traditionally flowering in August, continue to provide food for insects. I walked the crofts a few days ago. Apart from a few patches that have remained stubbornly wet all summer limiting growth, my walk was a wade through dense thigh-high vegetation.

In spring I had surgery to enable a return to ‘normal’ walking and it was hard work pushing through this tangle of life. Physiotherapy by any other measure! Every step was a delight for two reasons – because I could walk and because of the sheer amount of life encountered as I steadily worked my way forward.

I moved very slowly, careful to place feet on solid ground. (I must concentrate on the placement of each foot, every step, says my physiotherapist.) In one patch of gold tipped grasses three small brown birds lifted up in a low arc. My first sighting of a rare and precious visitor, whose voices rasped nightly in June and July.

Craneflies in abundance, moved and danced away with every step. Dragonflies surfed the waves of grasses and flowers. Unseen birds chittered all around though I could only identify the gangs of goldfinches rising from riverbank to overhead wire and down again.

The following day haar drifted in and cool quiet calm descended. Cobwebs stitched the flood meadows together. Even the river ran silently under swirls of silver gauze. It was a different world then. Gone was the busyness and purposefulness of wildlife, the determined waving of flower and stem, the rattling of seeds pods and nodding of grasses. Here was witchery and whispered secrets. What had been invisible in full sun was now given new form and substance by silver filigree and microscopic gemstones.

Once again, I explored the meadows. Slowly, carefully. Each step broke chains and threads and connections. The magic shifted and vanished, the light danced hither and thither, the silence splintered. Soon the west winds blew, bringing sunlight and iodine and oystercatcher songs up from the sea and almost as suddenly, the greenery of our fields seemed gold tipped, copper and bronze shone on nearby bogland, while on distant hills splashes of purple and gold materialised amidst the paling greens.

Here on Red River Croft, the high drier old river embankments overlooking the hay were edged with almost translucent blurs of lavender and blue, the hazy drifts of Devil’s Bit Scabious, the sign summer is coming to an end.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Moonlight at midwinter

Sunday 19th December; expectation and hope.

Fitfully flashing through murk and gloom, the weak light of winter had, until two days ago, promised little. And then the rain clouds cleared, the winds dropped and the ground began to dry. And hopes for a clear winter solstice day began to rise.

The transition from autumn to winter and the run down to the winter solstice have been both drab and dreary. Apart from the storms of course. Those have been exhilarating. Great howling globules of energy and sound on repeat, some storms named, other mostly not, unless in muttered scowls from locals trying to get on with doing things, or simply with being.

Sunday was corralled into a cold clear start by the last full moon of 2021. It rose over the small hill that overlooks our croft, Cnoc an Fhurain. Below it the ground was rust-red as if blood had been spilled everywhere and freeze-dried in the wintry air. It is said that in ancient times Druids would perform rituals in the light of the midwinter full moon using acorns gathered from particularly important and sacred oak trees. There are no full-grown oaks in South Erradale, only memories of them in place names on maps. But mystery and magic remain in this place.

This ‘Cold’, ‘Frost’, ‘Before Yule’ moon arced over the night and traced a wide, milk-white sky-road all the way from the Torridons in the east to the Hebrides in the west.  The largest and longest full moon of the year, it poured with promise and dragged the day into being. When it finally dipped into the west, the morning air foamed pink and rose. As I turned my face to the day, a rising sheen of yellow and turquoise hissed on my left, while a thinning smear of lavender, above a sea of palest turquoise, shushed on my right.

And beyond the Outer Hebrides, a purple scarf of cloud.

A few years ago, the same almost-solstice moon swam through similar pinks and mauves, growing in size until it eventually slid away through a gap in the islands and vanished altogether. I sat on the beach that day, dog keeping my feet warm, ice crystals on every sand grain, otters playing at the water’s edge, and wondered about the strangest sensation of settlement, of pausing, of holding one’s breath. Only it wasn’t me that paused but the place in which I sat.

Every year I hope to find that same sensory moment, of pausing and expectancy, loss and longing, either in the sunrise or at sunset. Often it comes unexpectedly at one single point in the day, but most often it finds me in the darkest hour of night.

This Sunday’s clear dawn grew swiftly under a rich deep blue dome of sky. The forecast promised much. Unusually, the mountains appeared as thin crumples on the horizon, shrunken somehow in the icy cold. Wrinkles of deep time perhaps or merely a rumpled bed sheet? I couldn’t tell. In the magical time between first light and sunrise over Maol Ruadh (the long hill that creates the southern edge of our valley), the sky filled up. A watercolour wash of pale salmon-pink.

Throughout the autumn and early winter, the crofts of South Erradale have mostly held onto their greenness because it has been so mild and wet but in Sunday’s low light, as beams of warmth spread across the valley, they looked brushed and napped like velvet, all their grassy fibres leaning into the sun, just as I was.

On such clear days, once the sun has breached the hills, our little valley echoes with noise. There’s a sudden rush into action with sheep bleating, cows lowing, dogs barking and chickens clucking in a domesticated dawn chorus. The wilder residents add their songs too and soon the whole valley is reverberating, stratified with sound. Tip your head this way or that, up or down and you can discern individual voices welcoming the light, each in their own way.

These midwinter days are so short the sun soon dips once more behind the hills and cold shadows run swiftly along the river. I find myself searching again and again for the elusive moment, when midwinter holds its breath and I hold mine.

Often midwinter days are letterbox thin, only just wide enough to post a few thoughts, sandwiched between hard cold and deep night. Or they are a roll of shiny Christmas wrapping paper reflecting a thin line of light but holding a metre or two of expectation.


Tuesday 21st; midwinter; cusp of a new year.

The wild cherry tree by our gate has its little tangle of Christmas lights. From the kitchen window they look cheery and festive. Outside, under the gaze of remote high peaks and moorland, surrounded by such emptiness they twinkle, minute fireflies lost in the scale of the landscape enveloping us, devoured by wild grandeur, but merry as hell all the same. We put them up out of habit and because we think of our children and their children as they flicker and fidget in the wind and dark.

This morning the solstice pre-dawn mountains once again rose tall and grand though they were veiled and shrouded, their powerful, familiar forms blurred by pale shifting mists. As the light crept in the mists swirled about, shapes and shadows changing every few seconds.

When it breaches Maol Ruadh, a midwinter sunrise can feel strangely close to South Erradale, almost within touching distance, and today, the light seemed dense and finger-burning hot despite the frost and snow-covered slopes. Then for little more than a few deep breaths, a single flare rose up from the disc of sun. A trumpet blast of golden light, a promise of renewal and restoration.

Solstice light is always special though the day may be fringed by pastels and dimming and cold sorrow. For me it is a time for remembering the lost but also for welcoming the resurgence of hope. Winter solstice becomes a threshold, a doorway into both the past and the future.

I cannot walk fast or far just now but the short, hard cold is cathartic and strangely heart-warming. Even the pale sunlight of midday feels like a blessing. My winter solstices are forever wrapped up in personal loss but they are never without hope. My mother died at midwinter long ago. Before she fell into her last sleep, she asked me to remember her, not in a church but in the fiery sunsets of winter and in the smiling face of the ‘Frost’ moon.

It is a few minutes after midday. Cloud is rolling in. The day is dimming already. Colours swirl about – pistachio and teal, pewter and sulphur. The sunset may well be hidden from me this year. Or it may not. I’ll let you know.

Whether you believe in the oldest traditions of Yuletide or not the days will begin to stretch and lighten. I hope this solstice brings you relief from the heartaches and stresses of yet another pandemic winter.

Look to the heavens for the promises light holds. You might see future summers in the flicker of starlight or feel them in moonbeams on your face. I shall be thinking of my mother as always. And this year, once again, my children and their little ones. I miss them all terribly.

Later, when I say farewell to the day, I’ll watch the moonlight play over the mountains and listen to the wild whispering my name, just as my mother used to do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Haymaking, dragonflies and memory

Oh hello, here’s Autumn, greeting the morning and washing into evening. In between, hoarding the greater part of the day, summer lingers, bright and livid, a riot of blue, green, red and purple. The heather is in full bloom. Its heady, heavy scent spreads out across hill and bog carrying frenzies of insects. Everything is drenched in sweetness; from crimson rowan berries to plump blushing rose-hips to bright yellow crab apples. Even the scent of bog myrtle is overwritten in the warmth of midday and the ripening of briar, bramble and berry. My sinuses ache with it all.

But down on the croft, another scent clears the headiness. The hay cut has released its magic; the goodness has been captured and although the young crofters of Opinan who come to help each year have now finished their work, the aromas still linger in our riverside fields – that delicate yet powerful scent of sugar and wine and Genoise sponge cake.

The ditches and field-margins are still in full bloom. Some flowers are only just breaking through the ‘canopy’ of meadow growth, hampered by this year’s long cold spring and wet June and July. But there are grasshoppers, spiders and craneflies filling the spaces between the stems of grass and flower, and curtains and crowds of tiny flies whose names I cannot find, whose life cycles I cannot fathom.

I am not the only one enjoying this post-hay-cut micro-world. There are dragonflies and damselflies – turquoise, red, yellow, emerald – darting about then resting on the grassy stubble, their wings made of diamonds, their bodies of gemstones.

Deep within my hippocampus sit memories of summers long past. There’s always a small tinge of sadness as summer ends and I’ve never been able to put my finger on quite why, but the shift in light from bright white to gold, tonal changes in birdsong and the appearance of dew-covered cobwebs, all play their part. Scent is undoubtedly the most powerful trigger for me and perfume is the reminder of long-ago late summers, wrapped up with distant memories of haymaking.

Although I was born into the industrial heart of Merseyside, my mother’s father was a farmer. And I can recall the sensation of walking through his hay meadows, following his horses and machinery as they cut then processed the hay. I seem now to have come full circle. I’m the grandparent living on a small holding, waiting for my grandchildren to visit, managing a few acres just as my grandfather did. He was an old-fashioned farmer, a tenant on a mixed farm, who shunned the artificial means of improving productivity so heavily promoted during and after the Second World War. He had two shire horses and shared equipment with his fellow farmers as was the way then. His horses were more skilful and precise than tractors, he would say.

The contrast between living in a town that had produced chemicals since the mid nineteenth century and visiting the countryside could not have been greater. By the time I was six, my grandfather reluctantly yielded to ill-health and handed over the tenancy to a younger, fitter man. He was gassed in the trenches of World War I and his heart had never fully recovered, but ‘Grandpa’ held on to the farm given to him in the aftermath of the war until his mid-sixties. Then he came to live with us. For him the contrast must have been much greater than anything I experienced going from home to farm.

So here I am, walking about the hay meadows, remembering how it felt to follow behind Grandpa and his horses as the cutting, tedding and windrowing went on at the end of summer. He never took to silage making, believing instead that the sugars, minerals and nutrients from hay were better for his animals.

On Red River Croft the cut began as August finally warmed up, its last chance to behave like August should, like the remote Augusts I remember. Cutting began in early evening towards the end of a long very warm day. The Opinan boys have full time jobs as well as working their own crofts and helping others. This is the way of life here. Crofting by itself cannot pay for or fully support families so many crofters seek paid employment elsewhere and most offer support and help with the bigger crofting tasks such as lambing, silage or hay making, ploughing and fencing. Mutualism at the township* scale. Symbiosis at the crofting scale.

The fields are cut as part of our management scheme for Red River Croft. Its overarching purpose, our main aim, is to restore our small part of this landscape, the croft meadows, soils and biodiversity. The hay goes to feed animals belonging to other crofters through the long winter months. Not all 10.5 acres are cut for hay, almost half is made up of different types of micro-habitat – peat bog, riverbank, scrub, ditches and field margins, postglacial terraces too steep for tractors, old wells and building remains including heaps of stones known as ‘clearance piles’, and patches of tree regrowth. Together, they provide a rich variety in a compressed patchwork of interconnected vegetation types.

As the tractor passed back and forth dozens and dozens of swallows parted the air above us then stitched it together again. I had thought swallow numbers were lower this year (only two nests in our old byre) but flying overhead there were too many to count. Craneflies and other insects disrupted by the mowing were thronging in dense clouds and the swallows flew back and forth, cutting through them and feeding. We watched until the midge hordes drove us indoors.

After a couple of days of turning, drying and re-turning, the hay was gathered into windrows. The perfumes were almost visible. In my mind’s eye they were like billowing laundry on a long line. I ambled about the meadows and every so often prodded the neat rows of cut grasses and flowers. Each poke released more scent. On every row, gangs of small birds picked at the insects and seeds caught by the haymaking. There was no birdsong only wing-whispers. A gentle shooshing as they rose up and down, up and down, moving ahead of me and then behind.

Later, the dragonflies came. Whether they were drawn by the light or by the aromas, I do not know. They settled on the gaps between the windrows where glistening dampness was seeping upwards from the soil and cut vegetation. I tried to draw imaginary lines between them all but failed. They reminded me of stars I have often attempted to braid together into constellations with familiar names, Lyra, Draco, Perseus and Sagitarius.

I sat for a while on a large boulder and watched their collective silence, birds, insects and all. All these new memories being written, adding to the library already gathered in my brain. I think I know what the dragonflies have come for, they’re also gathering memories, knitting together the old stories for us all. And now I think I see them as well. Just here are the whispers of crofters in the past, setting to work, gathering hay by rake and by hand. Over there, the two horses my neighbour’s family used to pull the tedder. Here is my grandfather, laughing as he tickles his heavy horses into motion. And there, there am I, following behind, with a fistful of wild flowers and nodding grasses.

* A ‘township’ is a tiny hamlet made up of a number of crofts (fields) and homes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Storm and memory

Saturday was one of our warmest days yet. High humidity levels enhanced a cloying, dense as well as heated lower atmosphere. The weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms for North East Scotland but not here. And yet, and yet… the afternoon began to feel tense and, to me at least, potentially thunderous. The garden birds appeared to react to the changing conditions too. They squabbled furiously on the feeders and yelled raucously from the hedges. Gangs of goldfinches fought each other fiercely as if the weather was making them tetchy.

Soon the view over the croft garden hedge began to change. Bright azure skies were quickly overtaken by high building clouds. It was hard to judge their height but in relation to the 1000m hills of Torridon that make up the jagged horizon of our south-easterly view, they appeared to stretch up at least 10km. Then the cloud tops disappeared altogether for they were building too swiftly. Below the masses of indigo-blue, bright-white cumulus roiled and boiled, merging then separating. Yes, I was certain, a big ‘storm-cell’ was heading our way.

View upriver towards the Torridon mountains.

The main body of ink-blue was beautiful. It was also turbulent, writhing and fast moving. Silvery-grey shelf clouds began to extend south giving the impression that the system would veer that way.

Shelf clouds form over the Maol Ruadh.

Cooler outflow winds soon came with the shelf clouds quickly spreading over Maol Ruadh, just upriver from our crofting township. At the same time, rotation was instigated and pedestal clouds began to develop with multiple lightning strikes around the rotating updrafts. The whole mass had developed into an independent convective system (a storm-cell) with a sharply delineated, almost ground-hugging base as it moved rapidly towards us, down the valley and towards the coast.  As the centre came closer still there were more lightning strikes to earth and cloud-to-cloud.

The change in pressure was remarkable. It was swift enough to induce a quite unpleasant headache and sudden changes in wind direction as various parts of the storm cell passed by.

But one of the most curious sights was of dozens and dozens of swallows flying hard despite the lightning and feeding whenever the gusting winds came and went. I had the sense they were tracking wind direction and therefore the passage of the storm. Downdrafts and changes to air pressure, temperature and humidity seemed to raise clouds of insects and it was these the swallows chased.

Finally, in the rear flanking downdraft, sharply delineated shelf clouds formed once again until torrential rain arrived and obscured any further semblance of form or structure.

The whole storm passed us by in just over an hour but it took out power for fourteen!

Watching the storm build, develop and then display textbook features, firstly from the croft and then from the safety of my attic, was fascinating. I love storms but am always unsettled by thunder. In a super-cell I often feel direct physical impacts on my body, headaches, sinus pain or earache and so on, but such storms also play mind games. I was lucky enough to experience great thunderstorms in the high mountains of New Guinea, displays of cloud growth and lightning that we would rarely, if ever, see here. And yet I felt secure even in the more exposed heights, thrilled by some of nature’s most raw and elemental displays of power. But I was young then. I thought of myself as a storm-chaser and mountain girl.

I lost that sense of youthful bravado years ago when caught in a summer thunderstorm here in the Highlands. On a warm cloudless day, I clambered up Stac Pollaidh with my family. The sky was a rich fierce blue; clouds in a sky so very blue were beyond imagining. The weather forecast had a baked-in certainty – no chance of rain, they said, let alone thunder. We sat on the summit for a while watching deer scramble about the rocks below us. They too were roaming higher places in search of rock-shade or damp cleft coolness. My daughter pointed her finger, “What’s that?” she asked. Beyond the hills to the south, we could see a dark mass of cloud. How it had begun when we had all been gazing into the blues of far away distant hills and valleys, the deep blue of sea and high dazzling topaz of sky I will never know, but there it was, like an ink stain on a shirt.

But I did know exactly what it was. I had seen sudden thunderstorms grow out of nothing in the tropics. “We need to get off the summit now,” I called to my husband and boys, who were cheerfully scrambling over the ancient sandstone crags, oblivious to the oncoming clouds. Together, we ran down the steep path and within a few minutes were overtaken by such fury. Deep darkness, white hailstones and shocking cold burst over us. Deer ran past and huddled tightly again the cliff face below the summit. Lightning began to strike. I threw my walking poles away. White-hot light struck a rock just a metre away sending steam and rock fragments into the air. All we could do was copy the deer. We knelt down to make ourselves as small as possible and hugged the cliff face. Again and again and again the lightning struck the mountainside. Boom, crack, smash, boom, followed sudden calm.

We got up and began to run once more down and around the shoulder of Stac Pollaidh. All the menfolk in my family are very tall and they quickly outpaced my daughter and I. The fury began once more. The boys vanished over the lip of the path, chased by lightning while we threw ourselves into a tiny rock shelter formed by a great boulder set amid heaps of heathery turf. From inside the ‘almost-cave’ we watched the storm. As the noise and tumult continued, we realised that the walls around us were quivering. The vibrations were not caused by the thunder or hailstones or by lightning strikes but by thousands and thousands of wings. We looked about us, astonished. Every tiny space was covered by bees.

Our breathing slowed. If the bees were sheltering here, we would be fine, I told my daughter.

For about 10 minutes we sat and watched and listened. Then, one or two bees flew out of the cave. Soon there was a stream. “Wait until they’ve all gone,” my daughter said, “Its only polite.”

I have never been caught in a thunderstorm on a mountain again. I am mountain weather-forecast savvy. But with every storm I see from my Highland home, with every great writhing storm-system that flaunts its might and beauty, I remember the wisdom of deer and bees.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments