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.

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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.

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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.

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The Shiant Isles – Perspectives from the Mainland.

This short essay, with images taken from my home in South Erradale, is published in the book ‘Spirit of Beyond: The Shiant Isles’* by artist Alison Dunlop RSW. With a forward written by Adam Nicolson and poetry by Brian Hill, the piece accompanies Alison’s extraordinary watercolour paintings, graphite drawings and photographs. Alison’s enigmatic and beautiful work is currently on display in an exhibition of the same name at Gairloch Museum, Wester Ross, Highlands of Scotland.

My home is in South Erradale in Wester Ross. The montane landscapes of Torridon, the waters of the Minch, the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides are visible from anywhere on our croft yet each day I take a short walk to a small cliff-top to be as close to the sea as possible.

No two days here are ever the same. Living in this expansive place on the edge of the mainland means we can see the weather changing before our eyes – cumulus tops blooming, feathered cirrus streaming, anvil-shaped thunderheads forming. Weather systems develop over the Atlantic Ocean beyond the outer isles and run headlong across the inner sea to foment and agitate in the hills.

The sea is my companion. Where once my thoughts were filled with high rocky places, now they are salty and windswept, imprinted in sand and draped with seaweed. The body of water that separates yet connects us to the islands is volatile, organic and organismal, with a voice and presence of its own. Its moods are dominated by the interplay of light, sound and colour. I love this space, this place.

Oceanic influences are remoulded here and governed by elementals – thalassic, terrestrial and aeolian. This is a place of transition and migration, of competing edges, conflicting powers and myriad habitats. Overlying every aspect of its human and physical geographies sits a long history of myth, music and storytelling binding mainland to island, inland sea to ocean, heaven to earth.

We are connected to the islands by geology as well as by the sea. There are more similarities than differences and those mutual characteristics are rooted in the fire and heat of early earth. Echoes of long-lost continents sit on our mountain tops and at the bottom of our sub-marine valleys. We are conjoined by the slow turning of deep time and the power of volcanism. We are bound by the narratives of ice and water.

Now my Anthropocenic westward view is of undulating ramparts. Across the Inner Sound and Minches I can see a connecting ladder of islands, from Skye to the northernmost tip of Lewis. Observe the lands across this inner sea from anywhere along our coast – from Rua Reidh to Red Point – and we appear to be living on the very edge of a great bowl filled to overflowing with water music, story and song.

Stand with me for a year and together we could trace the solar calendar along the silhouette of islands, from solstice to solstice, equinox to equinox, back and forth. Stand with me at night in deepest winter and we could watch the Aurora Borealis dance above us and below, filling the basin with neon green and stripes of red and gold. Stand with me on a midsummer night as midges sing in our ears and as we are serenaded by corncrakes, curlews and oystercatchers who never sleep – we could bathe in the whiteness of night and wonder where the stars have gone. Stand with me and watch an equinox sun-disc slip swiftly down the slopes of the Trotternish and dive into the sea before the knees of Harris.

Set within this bowl of extravagance are the Shiant Isles. They come and go as the mood takes them, or takes me. At times they are well-defined with shapes and forms I recognise and can categorise because of what I’ve learned about their particular geology and singular nature. At other times they are indistinct, mere shadows, like old teeth in the jawbone of some long-deceased monster. Every so often they vanish completely, clasped by the running wind, held within dancing showers or faded into shades and whispers in the mauve and blue stillness of haar on a summer morning.

For years I would trace the silhouettes of the greater islands but now the Shiants create a different focal point, they claim my gaze and transform the perspectives of my day. More often than not they catch my eye because they are painted in azure blue and sail on the blue-green waters of the Minch under blue-grey clouds. Blue, described by writer Rebecca Solnit as “the colour of far away, of emotion and solitude, the colour of there, seen from here, the colour of where you are not.” And so it is with the Shaints. They are my far away, my seen from here, my where I am not and might never be. Known, unknown. Touchable, untouchable.

There are blue men out there, in the Minch, or so it is said, but at times these islands shine as if covered in gold leaf. Or they will be blood red in a peach sea then charcoal-black under a storm sky. Or they prickle with white light as the sun rises over the mainland mountains in the east. The Shiants vanish at will and rise at whim, swelling in size or shrinking away to nothing. They use magic tricks that can be defined by science but only understood with art and poetry. Once I watched a pink full moon sink low, caught by the Shiants as if in a vice. It vanished with a silent pop.

From my coastal vantage point, I can see the Erradale River discharge its waters and sediments into the Minch, carrying fragments and remnants of tales from the mountains and messages from the hills. Fresh water mixes with salt to create long curving glyphs and letters, curlicues, whorls and gyres. They repel one another then merge again and again until they form words across the surface of the sea. I am no sailor so the language is beyond me. Yet there they are, spread out and swirling into the west, drawn in the direction of the Shiants.

Islands are sacred places. I once visited Skellig Michael on Ireland’s west coast with my father. The ancient dwellings and remains there belonged to holy men and women. I was told the island belonged to unnamed powers who could summon storms and great beasts from the deeps. Who would not want to commune with their gods in such a place?

I imagine the Shiants are similar – tall, steep, powerful, enigmatic, dangerous and sanctified. Surrounded by sea and sky, light and sound. Wreathed in violent weather then blessed by blissful calm. Filled with the noise of waves and seabird cries. Bathed in the colours and scents of air and water. On Skellig people wrote their prayers and rhymes to heaven and to love. I imagine old ghosts doing the same out there in the Minch. I think of their chants and songs released into the atmosphere like ribbons of colour. And I wait patiently, straining to hear them when the wind blows.

*Copies of the book may be purchased at Gairloch Museum or from Alison’s website:

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Cuckoo farewells and a silver solstice

Well, there it is. A crest, a summit, a passage – the summer solstice. The half year has outpaced me. I am still dawdling and thinking of spring. And for all the calendrical rushing forward, for all the clocks and dates and diaries hurrying onwards, our Highland summer has been later than usual in arriving. June has been mostly grey and damp, misty and midge-ridden, interspersed with just a few short spells of cheerful bright and sunny weather.

But what a sudden blooming now and what joy we’ve been gifted. A new granddaughter has arrived, her birth heralded by orchids flowering on the croft, by flag irises waving from the ditches, and cotton grasses nodding in accompaniment to the layers upon layers of birdsong, scent and gentle light.

Even on the cloudiest of June days, and there have been many, light has flooded in from the sea, bound up in rolling banks of cloud and waves that shove and push each other along the shore. The days have begun to incrementally shrink of course, an imperceptible ‘loss’ for now, but it will be another two months before our meadows are mature enough and ready for hay cutting. That’s a lot of summer yet to come, a lot of growth.

The cuckoos have gone – it’s a few days since I last heard them calling across our small valley. Time to head south if the light is leaving I suppose. Whatever the biological or environmental prompts my old book of Scottish birds says they leave in late July or even early August. And yet my notebooks record that for the last three years they have flown from South Erradale at the end of June.

A BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) project following tagged cuckoos as they migrate from sub-Saharan Africa along two main routes – via Italy or via Spain – reported that the most successful birds arriving this far north are most likely to have flown along the spine of Italy. Fancy passing over all the glories of ancient Rome, all those picture-postcard landscapes, to come to our semi-wilded wee valley to breed. According to the BTO cuckoos may spend almost half their year in Africa, more than a third on migration and around 15% here. So little time to achieve so much. And then, en route home, the adults apparently spend some time in Italy’s Po Valley where favourable conditions allow them to restore calorie deficits before the last leg of their journey. With my geographer’s hat on I think of the Po’s beautiful fields and woodlands presumably favoured by migrating cuckoos but also the old cities with some of the highest levels of air pollution in Europe. (Do cuckoos fly around these pockets of particulate-laden air?)

It’s even more remarkable that the young know instinctively when it’s time to abandon South Erradale and fly south. In the garden and out on the crofts birds are feeding their young as fast and frantically as they can. I keep looking out for outsized ‘cuckoo’ babies but I’ve yet to see one. There are many bedraggled parents about, likely candidates for the extreme parenting that cuckoo young would need. I wonder if these tiny residents feel like I did with a gaggle of youngsters. A wrung-out dishcloth was how my mother described my state of permanent exhaustion caring for four. With just over a year between each baby there were long spells with two little ones in nappies. If only there had been the equivalent of an Italian recuperative holiday available to me then.

Warmth and the residual damp of early June have prompted another significant marker event. As the cuckoos departed, orchids began to spring up. Normally there is some overlap but this year, held back perhaps by the thoroughly cold and miserable May and early June, the ‘early’ orchids were late. Now they cover the dry embankment close to the house (always a surprise on so steep a slope) in gorgeous yet delicate floods and flurries of pale pink. In the last three or four days fierce purple blooms have erupted everywhere, their rich brightness splashed across the green sward like acrylic paint on canvas. Best of all, the pale creamy white blooms of butterfly orchids have spread even further this year, extending their range out across the meadows. I remember when they first appeared. I was as surprised at their after-sunset perfume as I was by their fragile beauty.

Last year the summer solstice sunset was pin-sharp. We watched the sun sink into the sea beyond the northernmost tip of the Isle of Lewis and turn small high level lenticular clouds bright crimson. From now on sunsets flip backwards and track along the spine of islands I can see from home. The Hebrides and, in the darker half of the year, the Isle of Skye become a solar calendar.

This year there were mists and wraiths and strips of high cloud that brought dazzle and glare in late afternoon but turned into the colours of cuckoo plumage as the sun vanished. It was cold at the cliff-top as I watched the sea smooth into aluminium-grey then pink. Quite where the pink came from, I couldn’t work out, but there it was. It was too cold for midges but moths flickered in and out of sight. I kept spotting them in the corner of my eye, catching them as I turned around, small clouds in the shadow-shelter my body seemed to cast. They were whispering to each other, ghost wing murmurs, full of tales for the telling.

There were other voices too, night-time singers in the simmer dim – corncrakes rasping and the strange winnowing ululations of snipe – gently spreading across the bogland that surrounds our crofts. I walked back home wrapped in wistful music and salted myrtle.

The silvery green days have been mild and wet and thick cloud has dampened and dulled the gloss of summer light. Compensation has come in great big lungfuls of thick, rich perfume. Bog myrtle scent is ubiquitous here but usually as summer progresses other scents rise to dominate the day. Yes, on some sunny summer days, it weaves between the beautiful aromas of growing grass and wildflower blooms but it doesn’t normally overwrite them. And yet, and yet, for some strange reason, at this solstice, in this grey and green dampness, the perfume of Myrica gale has been eye-wateringly strong.

I think I know why cuckoos come here. What lady would not be charmed by such perfumed delights?

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Sunburst sunsets and diamond bright spring light

Spring light is spellbinding. It is high and diamond hard. It pierces everything, shreds thoughts, fills eyes with tears and burns delicate skin.

  In the unpolluted Highland air the intense clarity of light brings out the finest details of the crags and crevices of Torridon’s mountains. As the eagle flies, their summits are 16 kilometres from my back garden yet this spring light can sharpen their familiar shapes more than the ice cold of deep winter – Baosbheinn, Beinn Dearg and Beinn Alligin, whose tops include Sgùrr Mhòr (986m) and Tom na Gruagaich (922m), become crystalline and proud in the fierce glare.

Close to the summit of Sgùrr Mhòr there is a distinctive ‘cleft’. From South Erradale it looks like a small slice has been cut out by a sharp knife to create a flat platform. I keep dreaming of camping up there. I want to see the sunrise and the sunset from my proposed campsite. Yes, I am being greedy and unrealistic, but I can dream.

There is no platform as such. That is just a trick of the eye and wishful thinking. The notch marks the top of a long defile that drops almost a thousand feet down the other side of the mountain. Seen from Loch Torridon the feature appears as a dark gash in the mountain’s steepest face. Geologists and geomorphologists have figured out that it formed almost 4000 years ago in a single event. The mountainside collapsed in a great rock avalanche almost impossible to imagine. Scientists who have studied the debris in the valley below say it would have made a strange sound that would have been heard for miles around. Not just a rumbling but a higher pitched wailing, sound created by the speed of movement, size of rock fragments and sheer steepness of slope. Pure physics at play as well as geology and geography.

It has a name, this special place – Eag Dhubh na h-Eigheachd (the black gash of the wailing) or Leum na Caillich (the hag’s leap). Both names are evocative and ancient. The first probably refers to the sound acoustic scientists believe was made. The second may refer to the legends of Beira, Queen of winter, who raged around the land smoting mountains with her hammer. Across the Celtic world she is the Cailleach who is credited with creating the mountain landscapes of Wester Ross. Think of that – the first woman with a geological hammer!

That legends and measurable physical, geomorphological and geological events can be married in this way is wonderful. They may be tied to climate change too. 4000 years ago climate was rapidly becoming cooler and wetter. It’s entirely possible that intense rainfall coupled with rapid freezing and thawing would have weakened the rock along its fault-lines until the face came crashing down in one, enormous sudden event. What terror, amazement, shock and disbelief must have been felt by communities living here then? Yet we are almost in touching distance of what they experienced and described because their reactions remain, preserved within the places names and legends of Wester Ross.

It’s now May and Beira has lost her battles. Spring has come to this small valley close to the sea and to our croft. Yet even today, great bursts of cloud could be seen rushing between the peaks, growing and swelling to create thunderheads or pouring like rivers through the gaps between the summits.

In truth we have been enjoying the relatively calm, cold weather. Some days have continued to get a bit flustered with gusting winds but others have been as quiet as the end of a very long sigh. Life all around is beginning to bloom despite the still low temperatures. Catkins on the willows are bee-filled. The first tiny sedges in the top meadows have burst open with tufts of pale yellow flowers. Mosses and lichens have thrown up their fruiting bodies – forests in miniature – and bright green shards of grass are heading sunwards. It has been cold for such a long time that when the sun shines we all move into its yellow warmth, faces turned upwards like sunflowers. And in a sheltered nook, pale warmth transforms into real heat.

The cuckoos are busy, the sand martins busier still. But there are no swallows. I know they have much further to fly than the martins but they usually arrive within a day or two of each other. The sand martins have been here for two weeks so it is difficult to overcome a growing feeling of disquiet.

As I write, it is Beltane and I have just been looking at photographs and notes from this time last year. There was a long dry cool spell then too, when we were all in the first coronavirus lockdown, but swallows swam through our skies with the sand martins and marsh marigolds were in bloom. Caltha palustris, “Kingcups”, the yellow flower of Beltane, are said to protect against witches; here in Wester Ross they were picked to ward off Beira. And they are usually in flower by now, scattered in our croft ditches and along the river. Because of the cold they are not yet blooming. Perhaps they think winter may still come a-visiting and I’m wondering if they are also waiting for the swallows.

Throughout April most days have been multi-faceted gemstone bright, but the sunsets have been very different. Powerful, deeply resonant colours, often as rich and thick as melted wax, have filled the western skies. One evening a squad of showers blustered down the Minch and threatened to wipe away the sunset but they were exposed as mere whimsy by the strong and lavish light.

On another evening, the sun was a disc of mustard yellow, the yellow of Kingcups, surrounded by concentric circles of every ‘hot’ colour imaginable. This was not the light of a feeble setting sun; this was a blazing quasi apocalyptic heat. Though I watched it wrapped up in my winter coat, woolly hat and gloves to keep out the icy breeze, the hues and chroma were of Armageddon – hot, and about to get hotter. This was the nuclear sun as painted by artist Stanley Donwood, the beautiful terrifying image that adorns the front cover of Robert Macfarlane’s fabulous book “Underland”. Though at first the writer thought the painting showed the way down into the earth’s hot core, Donwood said it represented the last thing one would see in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

It makes me think of that too. But it also reminded me of the last time I had seen an almost identical sunset. My mother died at the winter solstice 25 years ago, in Aberystwyth. The following day I drove home to be with my husband and four children, a journey of about three hours over the hills of mid and north Wales. Some of the drive would inevitably be in the dark but I wanted to get home to the children in plenty of time for the normal routines of evening meal, bath and bedtime stories. By the time I got to Llandegla Moor the sun was setting. Here, for some strange reason I felt compelled to stop. The valley below had all but disappeared in the flaming light. I could see the disc of sun but around it halos of treacle-thick colour began to swell until even the silhouettes of the hills and valley sides fizzled away and everything was consumed by the almost blinding light and intense colour.

My mother loved to watch the setting sun from their hill farm overlooking the great bog of Cors Fochno and the wide sweep of Cardigan Bay. Every sunset since those happy days has had her voice burned within in it. But this week’s ‘Donwood’ sunset, was the very same shape and density and richness as the one marking her death all those years ago. I have never seen colour so condensed in spring-time. Just as it had on Llandegla Moor the sun consumed everything. Then, as it was finally taken under-land, the spell was broken by oystercatchers and curlew down on the shore and by a strange, pale mist thrown up by the waves.

Spring light is all motion and trickery and opulence and vigour. Yet it reveals the secrets of mountains and retells tales of the mystical figures who ‘created’ these grand landscapes. The blinkers fall from our eyes until we are blinded again and again by the setting sun and its decadent kaleidoscope of colour.

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The battles for spring

Spring BC (Before Cuckoos)

The transition from winter to spring can be marked by a single voice, the first to come in through my bedroom window. In winter the robin’s delicate sorrowing cuts open a frosty dawn but by early March, when the rising sun crests Baosbheinn, a song thrush breaks open the dark. Even in the teeth of a howling gale, there he is. Other birds must wake to his voice and for a while, shrug off his calls for the day to begin, just as I so often do.

The song thrush is canny. He perches at the top of an old hawthorn that has grown up-and-up evading the side-to-side work of grazers and browsers. The hawthorn is granted additional height and the song thrush extra advantage because the old ‘tree’ sits atop an ancient river terrace. From here his songs echo around the valley, announcing the day and promoting the hawthorn to others.

The rising dawn chorus of early spring builds and strengthens often through appalling weather. This year both singing and spring have faded in and out in the face of a barrage of storms from the north-west and icy blasts from the north-east. Weather has reflected the national mood music, playing out against a growing clamour for the ending of lockdown and return to ‘normal’, or something close to it.

The storms and squalls have been almost apoplectic, yet in their rage, magnificent. They have distracted me from waves of distress at not seeing my family. The Worsley diaspora is far flung and the grandchildren are growing fast. Missing a birthday is sad for all of us, missing so many has been very hard to bear. But the ‘wild’, unruly changeable weather has helped. Being mobbed by gusting winds filled with hail and bitter cold is cathartic.

Still unable to walk in high places, I’ve watched storms and lesser squalls run down the Minch from the small cliff-top near our croft. There are times when I have felt more alive being battered and scraped and deafened standing there than on a summit with extraordinary views.

The battle between winter and spring is retold time and time again in cloud type, wind speed and variety of precipitation. As Beira, the Queen of Winter, tries to retain control of the world she empties her arsenals and we are swept up in cloudbursts, snowfall, hard ice, thunder and torrents of wind. Each time she is pushed back by spring she is weakened and her next effort has less bite. But this year, the battles have been bigger and stronger, the grip of winter longer and louder. Checkerboard skies – light, dark, sun, snow, light, dark, sun, snow; windchill -7°C and wind gusts Force 10; spring-winter-spring-winter-spring. Ticker-tape seasons as well as weather phenomena.

Many storm cells and squalls have been formidable, the resulting vistas of sky, sea and land sensational. Updrafting clouds, towering snowstorms, fast-moving hail showers have dwarfed our most iconic mountains. They have recrafted landscapes and reduced land and people to mere fragments. What I think of as important and powerful becomes unsettled and insignificant under such skies. Normality unravels. I am humbled by the elementals and understand what it means to be powerless. Yet storms are participatory. I am not just experiencing them, we are interacting. I am not merely feeling their power there is an energy exchange of the most potent kind. We are made of the same stuff, these storms and me, elemental, emotional, physical, chemical – fundamental.

And yet I have found solace in storm watching and experiencing the extremes. My own losses and longings are given succour. I fling my stresses and angst into the snow and know they will fade away as the snows melt. I shout out love for my family into a gusting wind and know it will be carried to them.

Then, all energy expended, I look about for signs of spring. There – myrtle buds beginning to open, here – frogspawn in the bog pools, there – a bee emerging from the bare earth. The aromas of winter – cold, ice, wet rock – are exchanged for the perfumes of spring – damp earth, myrtle, gorse.  The air itself is scent, sound, light and motion. I’m reinvigorated by the alertness of living things, the readiness to move, to expand, swell and bloom. There is such aliveness in the storm clouds as they rush by so how is it possible for even more to remain behind once they’re gone?

Spring’s vitality comes from the willingness of other living things to share their life force, their energy. Once the storms have passed, even though I miss them, the sudden rush of spring-ness, of shared joy at birdsong, flower-bloom and green sap rising, ignites us all. This burgeoning growth reminds us that we are all part of the same interconnected whole, part of a living web that spans the globe and stretches from deep beneath our feet into the highest reaches of the stratosphere. For me, the sense of shared existence, of entanglement with all forms of life, includes the storms and violent squalls, as much as the blooming of hazel catkins and hot mustard-yellow gorse flowers along our riverbank.

Spring CE (Cuckoos in Erradale)

For a time I was jealous of reports of an exceptional blooming of blackthorn. The flowering seemed to occur in the long spell of cold that struck almost all the country. There were pictures on social media of its blossom in heavy snow and some remembered tales of a “Blackthorn Winter”. I have strong personal ties to blackthorn. My father had a very knobbly walking stick cut from an Irish blackthorn during a ‘late’ winter by the faerie, and gifted to his grandfather, “when such things were allowed”. There is no blackthorn in our small valley though it may well have grown here once upon a time when faeries lived in Erradale.

Finally, the snow and ice fizzled out although high storm clouds continued to build in the mountains to the east. Several times we sat out in warm sunshine and watched thunderheads build rapidly over Baosbheinn as Beira continued her rule in the heights.

Then, one day through a small tear in the clouds, spring simply poured in. And all around this small place it danced to the tunes of cuckoos.

I heard the first cuckoo of the year a little after dawn a few days ago. His voice was reedy rather than rounded – perhaps not surprising after so great a journey to find us. Now, there are cuckoo panpipes washing back and forth around the valley. Now, the weather is sensationally spring-like. Calm and still, dazzling then mist-shrouded; lavender, greys and pale translucent rose followed by hot yellows and radiant blues. The fields and hills are still winter-pale and brittle-brown; grasses are only just beginning to rise up through the mosses and matted old growth of last year, but everything is singing.

This is a hyperboreal spring that at long last is beginning to look like a Mediterranean summer.

All around me are layers and layers of birdsong. With my eyes closed I try to pick out and identify individuals, just as a ‘birder’ would. Instead they blend and become a musical stave in my mind, perhaps two, braced together in a grand staff. Each bird’s song is a jumble of notes but they fill the air above the river with complex music and spill out across the meadows.

And then, through all the jumbling songs… cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.

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Of snows and storms and future dreams

May I whisper to you? Of colours in a winter storm, of the songs and light within?

January is done and I am wish-wandering in the snows of Sgùrr Mhòr, the highest peak of Beinn Alligin in the Torridons. The mountain has three main parts – Sgùrr Mhòr, the ‘Horns’ and Tom na Gruagaich. From my home in South Erradale they appear as a ruffled wall and together with Baosbheinn, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Dearg form a barrier to the rest of the world. They are my guardians and protectors, a permanence made from deep time and long, slow yet continual change.

Today as I write the sky above is sharp and clear, a duck-egg blue running into deep turquoise. But the mountains are swathed in mist, as if delicate shawls made of chiffon and silk have been draped about them. There must be a temperature inversion, mist formed from the purest cold caught by an invisible layer of warmer air. Faint yet resolute smears of pale lavender mark the shadowy places among the peaks, so their well-known forms are decipherable, even with the silver-white swirls around their shoulders.

These are dreamscapes, these mountains of the mind and spirit, and for much of the month they have been gentled under thick snow and pale light, turning a creamy-violet under the moon. Once, in the midday winter’s light, only shadows confirmed their presence because the lines of silhouette and horizon had all but vanished in the whitening.

Snow has come and gone here by the sea, retreating to the hills when salt winds blew down the Minch. January has been very cold. Lochans and bog-pools have frozen, fingers of ice growing in the larger lochs and along the Red River. Eagles have ranged low, seeking food in the sheltered spaces of our valley where wildlife huddles.

For a few days, even seaweeds along the shore froze. Fragile life, conserved in silver ice and lit by the golden light of morning. Rimed, caught in time, almost in a moment of surprise, by thin tubes of ice, needles and crowns of thorns, all tiny, fragile creations.

Such calm days are transitory here so this pellucid sharpness becomes a temporary refuge in a turbulent world. Even a whiff of an idea or whispered prayer is transformed into frozen crystals that drift out across the waves. I seem to add shards of ice with every breath.

For the first two weeks of January, we went south into a covid-secure care bubble for the birth of our sixth grandchild, a wee boy. And while we were inside the joyful, tiring domain of the new-born, toddler and nursing mother, the world outside froze in time and space. Snow lay deeply on the ground in Cheshire as well as in the Highlands and I was unaware of the extra minutes of daylight, wrapped up in a warm baby-bubble. For a time, I failed to absorb news of growing numbers of infected and dead – all those happy Christmas and New Year family reunions destroyed now by loss.

Once back home, great squalls began to blow down the Minch. Cold winds sang laments for the dead. Towering swift-moving clouds dragged long curling snow and hail showers like the flowing tails of galloping horses. The sea changed colour from deep aquamarine to spectral olive-green.  

In the setting sun, storm clouds looked feverish. One evening we walked on the hill overlooking South Erradale. My fingers froze in the bitter gusting wind, my cheeks red raw, but it was worth it. I envied the sheep their thick wool coats. The kaleidoscope-sky darkened and deepened to vibrant petrol blues and iolite. I remembered that iolite, a gemstone, has a peculiar property, plechromism; it can appear dark blue viewed on one side but yellow or orange when looked at from another. The squalls and thunderclouds running past the setting sun seemed to be made from it, changing colour and intensity as I watched.

I thought about the energy and power in these storm clouds, about the exchange of light, water and chemistry and how earth’s systems continue despite everything we do. My grandchildren have been born into a world of storms, metaphorical and physical. Climate change, the stuff I have studied and researched, will be their lived experiences. But I realised, as a thick blanket of curdled orange cloud moved swiftly over my head, that if they are lucky and stay fit and well, they could live to see the start of the twenty second century.

While I was cuddling the latest arrival into our family, I snatched a few minutes here and there to continue reading Andri Snær Magnason’s book “On Time and Water”. He made me sit up and consider the lives of my family, how I can stretch intergenerational experience back into the nineteenth century via my grandparents (born in the 1890s) and now, potentially as far forward as the early 2100s with the grandchildren. In my head I can spin around and glance back and forth over more than two hundred years and cross three millennial New Year’s Eves; I am their pivot point. I know how climate and environments have changed since my grandfather was born but what does the future hold for the youngest and newest family members? Will even greater storms track down the Minch then? What will global temperatures be? What lives will these children lead? What will happen between now and the end of this century? Fierce weather, huge and powerful storms perhaps. Imagine the colours. We are all as fragile as the needle-tubes of ice riming seaweed.

I am a January baby, born in a blizzard at home on a wild winter’s day when the chimney of my parent’s house was blown down. I was a gripey baby and, tucked in with blankets, was left to grizzle and grumble in the pram until lulled by the wind. That was the “done-thing” then, though my poor mother must have been desperate to have regularly kept my pram outside in deep winter. So I am a storm-lover. Whether or not those deep memories of being warm while listening to howls from the wind are from baby-hood or from other times I cannot say, but I do love wild weather. Perhaps my grandchildren need to hear stories of wildness and change in preparation for what is to come. We will sit in an imaginary pram and hear the wind shriek and firestorms rage.

The squally weather passed and intense cold returned – bright, blue-diamond days with ice on the sandy shore and mountains thick with marshmallow-pink snow at day’s end. In the settled brightness, there are hints of spring in the valley but winter holds fast to the peaks. On the hedge-tops, sparrow gangs pause and raise their heads to the sun. Like me they sense warmth in the yellow rays of light. Their voices are responding to the lengthening days. In between moments of sun worship they are increasingly noisy and squabble for food on the feeders. And the first blackbird songs are emerging through the frost. Minute by minute we are heading to spring but there are weeks of drama to come. There is a certainty and constancy to the running wildness – calm – wildness – calm, and in the flicker-flashing of winter back and forth along the Minch, and up and down to the mountains.

So, shall I whisper to you, of colours in a winter storm, of the songs and light within? Look, if you dare. You can see their promises of spring despite the bone-chilling wind, and beyond, to the futures-past of families gone and those yet to come.

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The ottery light of midwinter and sinuosity of remembering

December is rushing by; countdown to the winter solstice is well underway. Darkness is deepening but light still rules our thoughts and governs almost everything we do. Soon the days will have contracted so much there are only three or four truly bright ‘workable’ outdoor-hours of daylight. But after the long haul of wet, grey weather characterising much of this year’s Highland autumn, the approach of midwinter was heralded at last by the flaring embers of late November.

Winds fell away, the air was crisp and everything glittered. We emerged from the gloom like butterflies. The roads were busy as we all dashed about to catch the sun and chase the gold. Loch waters stilled; the sea calmed. Mountain and moorland, woodland and coast exuded colour and radiated light. The fiery hues from cushions of moss and tufted grasses, greens and purples from lichen-glow and bark-shimmer were voluptuous and enticing, luring us off the footpaths and away from the trails.

The first weekend of December was just as sharply charged. One evening I stood high on Red Point shivering in the deep-blue cold watching the hot colours of sunset slip away behind Skye and on another watched the hills flare in fuscia and burgundy behind me.

The great abundances of high summer are long gone, remembered here and there in the odd tall flower spikelet, in umbels and spears that avoided hay cutting and cattle grazing, and in the odd dried and shrunken rosehips rejected by birds. The winter winds and sullen grey skies that return again and again whisper to me, stories of loss and grief. And accompanying the deepening dark is a sensation of emptiness exacerbated by the absence of my family in this pandemic year and one that feels tougher and harder because it has followed on from a summer in which nature flourished.

During the first ‘Great Confinement’ our valley and coast was much quieter than usual. There were no tourists and few locals on the beach. Birdlife thrived; flocks appeared along the shore in much greater numbers becoming bolder and more daring, unflustered by our presence. Otter spraint was everywhere too. The large familiar spraint-mounds grew larger still and otter tracks appeared in river muds and beach sands, criss-crossing our own trails.

But once lockdown ended, visitors arrived in great numbers. We have never seen it so busy. People camped on the beach, in the dunes and in the hills. Convoys of cars, motorcycles and campervans made their slow steady progress along the single-track roads. And no wonder. After months of travel restrictions, people understandably flocked to the Highlands, drawn by the wonderful scenery and good weather. On the wee beach at Opinan and along the shore evidence of ottery activity vanished completely.

As summer passed into autumn tourist numbers dwindled. The beach was quiet once again. I waited and waited for the otters, hoping they would return. With every opportunity I searched for footprints in the sand and for spraint along the rocky shore path. We spotted an otter once, diving in and out of the kelp beds, hunting, but I missed them dashing past the sea-log-seat. Gradually footprints began to reappear. We didn’t see them in action but I knew they were out and about, active once again.

Then came news of an otter being chased by dogs and I felt overwhelmed by grief. No anger, but intense sadness. There are so few wild creatures than can withstand dogs. And there are so many losses in the world just now that I couldn’t bear to think of this normally otter-filled place somehow reduced and diminished. Although I had not witnessed the ‘chase’, this for me was a red flag event and a clear warning about the pressures on the natural world even here.

But this is a strange time of year personally. Midwinter is as sinuous and complex as ottery motion, joyous yet dangerous. My intense and somewhat complicated thoughts about otters, other wildlife, and about light and dark are tangled up with remembered loss and grief as the solstice draws ever closer. You see my mother began her own passage from life at this time of year decades ago. She died far too young, at the winter solstice, just hours before the sun’s promised return.

So I still cannot quite separate the joy and excitement of preparing for midwinter and Christmas from that overpowering sense of loss. I look for her in the light and dark and in the wilder spaces here and listen out for her voice. For she taught me about birds and flowers and trees and encouraged me to write stories and paint and take notice of the particular, the tiny and very beautiful things in the natural world. I remember sitting by her side studying a picture of an otter and painstakingly reproducing its curving body, whiskered face and long tail in pencil. How she would have loved it here. Even after all these years I see her joy of life and love for us in the sinuous grace of an otter as it scampers down to the sea.

In these December days light surges at sunrise or sunset, colours seep into everything. I imagine the gold, copper and bronze coursing around my body, enriching my blood so I don’t feel the shortening of days as a constriction. Instead they swell, exploding into firework-blooms of orange, red, and yellow. They are full of hope and life and joy even when westerlies blow dark gunmetal grey over a charcoal sea. A Scottish midwinter is a chiaroscuro, a rampaging, alternating, exhausting roller-coaster of light and dark, colour and sound, deep and merciless but utterly wonderful.

My midwinter days are swept up in remembered grief and possibly because of that they become more intense, more beautiful and much more powerful. In the same way, rightly or wrongly, my concerns over our otter communities intensify too.  But perhaps this year, sitting on the sea-log-seat at the winter solstice, an otter will run by and I can look forward to the returning light and lengthening days, filled with the joy of remembering and hope for the year ahead.

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The procession of light and colour

Each Monday for a little over six months nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison enchanted listeners with her podcast “The Stubborn Light of Things”*. At the end of September, I was thrilled to join her with a few words about this incredible country I call home. North West Scotland is a windy place and after several attempts to record outdoors I eventually retreated inside. The final recording was made with doors and windows closed, thoughts just spilling out as they often do.

My very first attempt, which included a lot of laughter as well as wind noise, was made as I walked along the track that runs from my front door to the sea. I wanted to describe the physical geography of this place, its shape and powerful presence and explain to potential listeners about the impact it has on my life. I had hoped, especially for Melissa, to capture the sounds made by the squadrons of geese that had been flying overhead for some time, the boisterous gangs of oystercatchers on the shore and maybe, just maybe an eagle. It is always busy and noisy here, with sheep and cattle comings and goings, with tractors, pigs, ponies and chickens, birds whisking back and forth, and of course, the sounds of the Red River and almost permanently present sea breeze. But on the day of recording it was just too windy, too noisy and time was short.

The walk I wanted to capture is one I do every day and, because I cannot climb the mountains just now, one that has become a talisman, influencing my perspectives on this place, and one that is a palliative for well-being. It is a walk from the back door along a track running between our croft and a large peat bog to the cliff-top edge by the sea. From there the little track turns north down the steep slope and before heading down I always pause to watch the waves and wildlife, try to figure out what the wind intends to bring to us and drink in the light. At this spot our small valley and the mountains of Torridon are at my back, the sea and wind in my face.

This part of Wester Ross is made from Britain’s oldest rocks, some more than 2 billion years old, overlain by multiple layers of climate and ecological history and by the stories of peoples who have come and gone over millennia. Ours are the most recent and thinnest of all these tales, the uppermost part of a palimpsest, yet they continue to be profoundly influenced by this living landscape and by the slow inexorable passage of ‘deep time’.

My home sits within an ‘edgeland’, a complex coastal zone like no other, habitat-rich and full of life. It is a place of motion and turbulence, shifting light and altered space, of transience, transmission and longing.

Out to the west the sea is also fringed by ancient rock. The horizon is an undulating silhouette created by what appears to be an almost continuous chain of islands – the Inner and Outer Hebrides – from Rona, Raasay and Skye all the way to the northern tip of Lewis. The view from croft and cliff is therefore created from great complexities of rock and water that have come together again and again over millions of years. To me the Minch is a great bowl whose edges and rims are formed from mainland mountains and islands and unimaginable expanses of time. It is a construct that holds me fast. It captures light and colour and magnifies and transmits both beyond its limits.

From my vantage point, I can watch the sun setting across the western rim of the bowl. Throughout the year the position of sunset changes, processing back and forth along the island-horizon from mid-winter to mid-summer. The summer solstice sun falls away into the sea just off the northern end of the Isle of Lewis and at the winter solstice dips behind the low hills between the Cuillin and Trotternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye. In spring and autumn equinoctial sunsets lie between the northern tip of Skye and the Uists.

The solar year is mapped out along ancient rock silhouettes whose island shapes are as well defined as the angles and lines on a sextant. As the year wanes we long for light most of all, grieving a little each day as it constricts. But watching sunsets move swiftly along the outer edges of this space back and forth, year in and year out, I see the light as powerful, stubborn and magical, an elemental force pitched against darkness of every kind. Even at its most constricted, the light from the sun brings great joy and colours so rich and deep they remain imprinted on the mind for days to come.

Of course, not every day brings a sunset clear enough to pinpoint to a particular peak or valley because the majority of our ‘weather’ also comes from the west. Above the line of islands, the towering cumulonimbi of great storms building out in the Atlantic are often visible. We can watch them travel towards us and assess the coming weather from the types of clouds growing beyond the Hebrides or pouring in over the Trotternish.

From the little vantage point the relationship between sea and sky in this space is laid bare. It is a relationship that is volatile, filled with energy, colour, sound and scent. I get caught up in it and feel part of it. No two days are the same. The vibrant colours are interchangeable, reactionary and animate. They feed off each other, they are intertwined and irrepressible even on the bleakest of dark winter days. At times, it is hard to recognise anything other than colour; the rest of the world falls away because of the limitless variety and intensity of hue and chroma, and because of the powerful interplay of light and shadow.

Seen from this particular spot the elemental exchanges between air, water and earth are unlike anything I have ever encountered before, even on mountain summits. Perhaps it is partly because, in my shielded and relatively immobilised state, I am measuring the changes more carefully and acknowledging more deeply the emotions they arouse in these Covid-19 times. And yet I can’t help feeling that I am not alone when I stand at the edge of the cliff, wind-whipped, eyes watering and skin stinging. There seem to be ghosts all around, the spirits of those who have stood here over millennia watching the sun’s passage, calculating, measuring, trying to decipher its meaning or their own relationships to the heavens, or merely enjoying the light and colour as I do. I often wonder whether they marked their conclusions on antler, wood or stone. In all likelihood their tales have become layered in the peat or carried off by the wind in the same way mine are dissolved in digital space.

I now think that even if I had been able to obtain a suitable recording from the cliff and tried to explain what it feels like to live here on this edge of the world, even the slightest breeze would have masked the voices of my ghostly companions. But I could have rejoiced in the light of the autumn equinox, described the colours of the sea and explained about the procession of the sun. And maybe you wouldn’t have believed any of it.

*If you have missed the beautiful podcast “The Stubborn Light of Things” you can listen to all twenty seven, half hour episodes here:

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