The tumbling of summer and midge mayhem

The recent spell of weather was unusual and impressive: four weeks without rain, four weeks of bright clear skies and sunshine, and four weeks of heat, real Mediterranean-style heat. Warm air whispered of far-away places while slow moving currents scribed curlicues of azure-blue on seas of moonstone and chalcedony. In the long still evenings rooibos tea poured out of the sky-dome and filled up the Inner Sound. It has been so quiet in recent weeks, both Inner Sound and Minches have been breathless and blue, while the hills and croft meadows crisped and curled, and footpaths turned to dust.

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P1010094We are just days from the summer solstice so the dawn pipers call us into wakefulness before 3am.  June days end slowly and late, in a long quiet glide of insect sparkle and batwings and the rich perfumes of peat bog and meadow. Heated myrtle zest and pine resin give way to the syrup of warm soil as the last lingering sun-glow vanishes around ten thirty, firstly in a seam of turmeric, then in smears of celeste and zaffre. But eventually even these colours dissipate, yet the sky shines as if layered with chrome and pewter. It is now possible to walk without a torch even after midnight, and it feels like a walk through ghosts that are cool and solid.

 

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For a time I thought the heat would stay even longer. But overnight summer was scrunched into a crumpled ball of tissue paper by an unseasonal early storm. ‘Hector’ rolled in and now every hollow is filled with water and the fields are steaming. For a time my world constricted and I could not see the hills for the furiously running bands of rain though I could still hear the salt-crusted voices of the sea. The rough weather ran in from the south-west overnight and by morning the old Shetland ponies looked bedraggled and surprised as I struggled with unruly buckets in the gusts. Cindy gave me a hard stare. She seemed to be blaming me for her disturbed night and storm-soaking. There is plenty of grass but because the ponies are so old they need some extra vitamins and nutrients. They have their summer coats now but after a prolonged soaking and partial blow-dry their body-hair was crimped, like a certain brand of crisps, and their manes had expanded into thick fluff.

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Here in the North-West deeper ground retains a lot of moisture even in summer heat so shrubs and trees have flowered profusely in the hot weather. But during the storm the air surrounding the house and garden was a maelstrom filled with unexpected debris and surfed by birds. Swallows and sand martins pierced the waves of turbulence. All around the croft cascades of bright yellow broom blossom mingled with shreds of pine needles. Gusts tore at our hedges, trees and long grasses and ripped insects from their leafy moorings. The mayhem and chaos released a deluge of warmth and moisture filled with the thick aromas of wet earth and plant juice.

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I have been worrying about the state of things, about what is happening in the natural world. Reports from across the country and further afield note and lament declining numbers of insects and birds. And this spring and summer certainly feel different, as if some unnameable thing has come to pass, though I cannot identify what it is. I am no natural historian; I do know about geo-stuff and how landscapes form and function and new skills are slowly being absorbed, but this talk of insect population crashes and missing swallows, swifts and sea-birds is disturbing. All through the gloriously sunny weather, as family and friends have come and gone, I have watched the shore and our croft fields. There has been a noticeable lack of birds, particularly sea-birds. We have seen occasional gannets diving and the low level fly-pasts of shags and cormorants. And yes, there are oystercatchers, dunlin, common sandpipers and ringed plovers, but their numbers are low. I have counted six bonxies skimming along the coast one after the other and hooded crows in noisy clusters on the low cliffs. But in the skies above the croft there are very few swallows. None are nesting in our old byre (it has more than a dozen cupped nests, still waiting) though one pair fly in and out all the time so I am still hopeful. Other meadow birds seem to be fine: sand martins are plentiful, and pipits, skylarks and willow warblers, together with the usual garden birds, are in full voice, and boisterous. On one hot afternoon a sea eagle flew overhead, as if slowly swimming through the syrup-thick air, his beak and feet as yellow as the meadow buttercups, his tail as white as the moon. The air was so congealed with the scent of bog myrtle that I wondered if he was floating on an invisible blanket of perfume rather than heat.

P1000595I do not know what is causing some species to suffer while others muddle on. Bees here are abundant; crane flies, dragon flies and myriad small flies dance over the meadow grasses and garden flowers. In the ‘top field’ embankment, dust-dry over the last few weeks, are thousands of small holes that housed solitary bees. I have counted more this year than ever before. So here, at least, the problem is not a lack of insects. On the same bank, normally covered with orchids by the end of May, the turf was thin and bone-dry but the heavy storm rains have brought a sudden orchid blooming.

The storm caused damage down at the local beach. Yesterday morning I went down the cliff as usual with Dram (our dog) and as we approached the shore I could see several gulls and oystercatchers sheltering by the sea-log-seat. Overnight the high tide coincided with the strongest north-westerlies and left piles of debris along the sands. Ringed plovers had been nesting in their favourite spots but the storm-assisted tide had wreaked havoc. One nest with eggs was completely buried by sands and gravels, another with hatchlings washed away. Two plover parents looked war-weary and bedraggled yet they seemed happy to allow dog and me to sit close by and watch as they preened. Other parents were luckier: oystercatchers and common sandpipers, though also ruffled by the gales, have nested where there is more protection from the highest waves and strongest gusts.

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The losses due to wild weather though sad are somehow more palatable than those caused by simple human carelessness or callousness. And yet, such unusual weather systems may be a sign of greater changes in the atmosphere and oceans caused by our collective activity at the global scale. The feeling that whole earth systems are shifting and becoming relatively unbalanced is hard to ignore and I feel a rising internal anger at so many implacable denials that trouble has begun to arrive at our doorsteps.

The showery weather has lingered and I have not heard the cuckoos for a few days. They seem to have left us a little earlier than last year. But as the sun breaks through the clouds I can see swallows skimming the fields as insects begin to rise. There are ripples of light filling the air over Skye and it is impossible to tell whether they are rain showers lit from behind or beams of sunlight cast downwards through a cuckoo-coloured cloud-duvet. More showers are raking the Shiant islands while behind them Harris is splashed with cream light. I can imagine the noise of bees in the machair and the warm air there, while the cliffs of the Shiants are washed by sea-bird tears.

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On this side of the green-blue Minch fields are accessorized with small pom-poms of bright white cotton grass. They wobble and bobble in the stiff breeze and the effect is of an old cushion so worn that the stuffing is coming out between the threads of green and yellow. I once filled a small vase with a bunch of ‘cottons’. They lasted for weeks but one day a throng of midges emerged; what signalled to them to leave the soft protection of cotton I will never know but it rates alongside my blooms of midge-laden bog myrtle as one of my less sensible attempts to prettify the house.

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Of course, this is the Highlands, and the heavy rain brought by Storm Hector has encouraged an earlier-than-usual explosion of midges. Wind is their only enemy when we are beset by cloud. And so a salt breeze, while it flicks broom blossoms about, flattens my young bean shoots and forces the bog cotton grasses to dance, will carry off the blood-sucking wee beasties.

They are the price to be paid for being able to sup the deliciously perfumed and pristine air that wafts up from the sea and across the bog, and for living inside this wild and wonderful place.

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Fire and fury (and cuckoos)

On Saturday morning a surprise landed on the lawn as I knelt gardening. A cuckoo, his livery as blue as the waters of the Inner Sound rippling with currents of platinum-grey and violet, his abdomen a striped T-shirt. His “Cu-ckoo” was keen and loud and his wings were thrust downwards as if steadying himself. Within minutes a swarm of small birds erupted from the hedges and trees and began to hurl themselves at him. That unusually close visitation was the third in a week. The cuckoo wobbled and flew off, discouraged by the thronging aggression. This spring the Erradale valley is bouncing with two-tone cuckoo song; there are more cuckoos here than in previous years and they certainly seem much bolder, searching for suitable nests in gardens and field margins close to our house, something else I have not seen before. Apart from one or two days of downpours over recent weeks our weather has been dry and bright, and the light breezes have been “Cu-ckoo” filled, with ripples of repeating echoes. As the cuckoo departed a willow warbler, atop a spike of spruce in one of the hedges, began to sing, with relief perhaps.

The current spell of hot weather comes after months of dry intense cold so the ground is crisp and dusty. Even the Sphagnum hummocks on the peat bog next to Red River croft have desiccated to pale crusty cushions. Bog pools have dried up, though here and there are patches of dark, wet peat overhung with heather and cotton grasses, and fringed with sundews. The same cannot be said for the blanket peat up on the hills. There the heather, dwarf shrubs and tussock grasses are parched and friable, and so we fear fire. Uncontrolled wildfires destroy nests, chicks and eggs, insects, lizards, small mammals, soil fauna, peat, and the very soil itself.

Down here in the valley  sand martins are searing back and forth over the lower fields creating routes that are formula-1 race tracks through the warm air. They too are here in greater numbers than before. But sadly there are fewer swallows than last year. I am holding my breath, anxious; reports on social media are recording their late arrival around the country and I hope that more of ‘our’ swallows will find their way home. The byre door has been open for some weeks now, waiting.

The last few months have been a peculiar mixture of ridiculous cold and scintillating warmth. Like the late swallows, I am late updating my blog. The sluicing out of winter flashed by amidst a potpourri of activity on the croft, interspersed with family visits and a writing schedule that has brimmed with scientific papers, a piece or two for the journal Elementum and a wee book project. Excuses, excuses, excuses; but here we are, and the croft, sitting as it does inside a hidden and enchanting little space, is as busy as ever.

Winter’s end was cathartic and searing, ice-cold and dry days brushed snow and hail across my face, wrought crystal in the pools and ditches and fringed the Red River with ruffs of ice. For much longer than usual the ground was iron-hard. But one of the wonders of nature is that so much abundant life can be released after such prolonged and permanent cold in a place that usually experiences only intermittent freezing. Early on in February one or two days sang with warmth and promise, and over melting ditch waters, spirals of insects rose in spare beams of sunlight. But the cold returned so swiftly that they were frozen in mid-air and blew away, tumbling along with the strangely fine, near-microscopic flakes of snow.

Eventually temperatures began to rise and the colours reminiscent of the frozen Arctic and drifting icebergs were replaced by rich seams and drapes of royal blue and sapphire. In the clear clean air and under cloudless skies I was wind-burnt, sunburnt, and salted. And the ground warmed quickly.

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Spring erupted suddenly, blooming with life. Waves of yellow followed swiftly one after the other: daffodils, primroses and cowslips, dandelions, celandines and marsh marigolds, and the fierce mustard yellow of gorse bloom. Now meadow buttercups and bird’s foot trefoil flowers are opening in the full sun. The ice-cold pale-dun croft meadows were over-painted in glossy green in just a few days. Warmth flushed life into every nook and cranny. And as our nights constricted rapidly the dawn chorus came with a sudden aromatic discharge of sap, myrtle, lemon and peat.

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Two temporary residents came to stay with us in March. Hector and Duncan, pigs belonging to our neighbours, have been rooting and digging in a small section of the top field. Their job has been to open up the ground to make it easier for us to turn over the earth and ready it for planting, for the top embankment field is too weak to support the weight of a tractor and the ground is too stony for a rotavator. And they have succeeded to some degree, churning their snouts about to rip open the dense matt of vegetation. As they plodded around gangs of small birds flew in to feed on the open soil, rustles of skylarks, pipits and other meadow birds as well as capers of robins, song thrushes and blackbirds.

Now we are only three weeks from the summer solstice. I can hardly believe it. The heat is astonishing. The good weather has brought many tourists and the main roads and tourist beaches are busy. Hector and Duncan need to be hosed down and the meadow birds come for the water in the pig-trough as well as the insect pickings. But the dryness mixed with increased visitor pressure has also brought catastrophe. Fires, begun by careless campers, began to rage yesterday at Diabeg by the Torridon mountains, at Lochcarron and on Skye. Firecrews and locals have been battling the blazes now for more than 24 hours but they have spread, fanned by the gentle winds and exacerbated by the tinder-dry ground.

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Our valley runs ESE to WNW, the very same direction as the winds and for most of yesterday and all through the night we were blanketed in smoke. It smells of peat, so the fires are not simply skimming across the heathland and woodland, they are deep and therefore almost impossible to control. All I can think about are the nesting birds: snipe, curlew, dunlin, red-throated divers, and all the insects, including dragon flies and spiders that will have perished. As fires spread they also burn the uppermost layers of peat and the living mosses that create it, so destroying the chance of peatland recovery. Peat takes thousands of years to accumulate, a centimetre every ten years or so, hill-soil even longer. As the fires burn, soil and peat lost to the atmosphere as smoke and miniscule fragments of charcoal, represents centuries of lost landscape history. And it is utterly heartbreaking for a palaeogeographer who uses peat to unravel the past.

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Of course crofters deliberately burn heathers in a practice called ‘muirburn’, but it usually takes place before the main nesting season and is controlled so that ‘deep’ fires cannot take hold. There are mistakes, some of them deliberate, but by and large most muirburns are carefully managed. This is a practice that, coupled with grazing by deer and sheep, has kept large parts of the Highlands treeless for generations. Where it has been over-used land becomes degraded, peatland is lost and soils thinned, and erosion becomes commonplace in heavy rainfall. Worse, the degraded ground loses its flora and fauna, its ‘seed bank’ and populations of microfauna and fungi. Once lost, they are almost impossible to ‘regrow’. And so many of the glens are silent, and bereft of insects they become emptied of birds.

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So the current wildfires are making me angry as well as despairing. There has already been so much loss in this wild country: wildlife, habitats, soil. Roaming in the hills at times feels like a walk through the missing, the ghosts of landscapes long since vanished, though the clues to their former existence are there if you look closely.

I must go out again to see how the smokes are moving. The wind will change direction later and we must be prepared for fires spreading over Maol Ruadh from Diabeg and down into the Erradale valley.

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Winter blues and the magic of light

So much happens in midwinter, not just the mayhem of a family Christmas but out there, beyond the walls and windows, down by the shore, in the fields and in the woods. Apart from the preternatural (and for me much needed) stillness at this year’s winter solstice late December and early January have bubbled and rippled with light and energy.

Early in December Storm Caroline swept across northern Britain. It is usual to experience hurricane force winds here and rather more unusual for such storms to severely impact the south. Often our November to February calendar is a chequer board of change: dark squares for wet and windy Atlantic weather systems, light squares for polar Arctic air masses. The former burst with storms, turbulent squalls and wild seas, the latter with glacial clear calm and sub-zero temperatures. The stormy westerlies cause havoc along coasts and sea lanes and dangerous, unstable conditions in the mountains. But the northerly air, flowing thick with cold and dense with snow cloud, brings mountaineers out in force. (Oh! What delight as new footprints crunch into pristine snow!)

Caroline was a colourful storm; she brought great heaps of purple and orange cloud, livid green seas and enormous aquamarine waves. She remodelled our beaches and wantonly threw mounds of sea weed, rope, plastic debris, tree branches and boulders all about the shore paths, and then topped everything with tall pillars of coffee-coloured foam. All the usual way-markers vanished. The sea bellowed, the air yowled. Though storm-days were largely sunless both the sea and sky pulsed with energy and power of their own; the Inner Sound glowed with phosphorescence and streamers of coruscating light, then it would fall dark as the atmosphere rumbled and loured with pulsing colour.

As Storm Caroline moved east her tail dragged air from the far north bringing legions of high clouds, grey bottomed, gold-topped, heavy with snow and ice. Many showers failed to reach the ground and were instead swept up to immeasurable heights; others, thunderous and rainbow-edged, dropped snow on our beaches even as bright green waves tried to sweep it all away.

 

Some cloud banks were so low and dense they mirrored the inky-blue waters of the Minches, and sandwiched between the bands of indigo, slivers of icy air ran bright and clear all the way to the snow-covered Outer Hebrides. On the Trotternish of Skye streaks of Christmas light decorated the Old Man of Storr in gold tinsel and silver lametta.

But now and then the sun shone in the rarefied air of high pale luminous skies and we paused to let the weak warmth caress our faces, and then turned to let it warm our backs. The Shetland ponies followed patches of sun around the fields, eyes half closed in pleasure, breath steaming. Strangely, on cloudy days, during the darkening hours after sunset, the mountain snowfields glowed, and although the low lying hills and coastal croftlands were slate grey and splattered with dark shadows of soot and charcoal, we could still see by the glimmering snow-light from Baosbheinn, Beinn Dearg, Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Tom na Gruagaich.

Solstice day itself was calm and pastel. Sunrise was marked with a cup of strong tea, late afternoon by a pather around Red Point. Seen from the hilltop viewing point high above the shore, the Inner Sound swings between Applecross and the islands Raasay and Rona; Loch Torridon stretches inland towards Diabeg and the ramparts of Torridon; Skye’s Cuillin peaks and Trotternish ridges are an undulating backcloth in whose clefts and gullies the winter solstice sun finally sets.

Sunset that day was hazy and diffident beyond the sea; grey, mustard-yellow and rosy vapours spread slowly and were reflected in the water. I enjoyed a momentary pause to sit on a bench that overlooks the Point and to reflect on the solstice in peace and think, as I always do, about my mum who died at midwinter, years ago. Below me on the beach my family continued to run and play in the fading light, their laughter rising up now and again through the quiet and stillness. As the sun sank further into grey shadow I breathed in the pale lavender light and tiny grains of ice and felt then as much a part of the natural world as the grassy turf and lichen spotted rock and hopping meadow pipits and swooping sea birds. As I breathed out I watched my warmed mist-breath mingle with the purple cold, and vanish.

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There was so much noise, light, food and happy companionship over Christmas that I almost missed the quiet addition of a few millimetres of additional light that follow the midwinter solstice. But on a cold morning that basted by dull aluminium-grey clouds, a pale narrow beam alighted on a wafting cobweb. And I realised that amidst all the wrapping, decorating and cooking there had been shiftings and movings in the wilder world. Looking out across the fields I saw that light from the rising sun, yet to break cover, had indeed slid almost unmeasured along the silhouette of Meall Ruadh from its solstice position.

Meall Ruadh is a miles long hill and shaped like the curved back of a red deer. It borders our small crofting hamlet, protecting us from southerly gales, and runs from a high cliffed edge by the sea to meet the Torridon mountains in the east. From Red River Croft the junction between Meall Ruadh and Tom na Gruagaich appears as a V-shaped cleft, although in reality there are a series of knobbly hills and crags there. The midwinter solstice sun rises over the smooth flanks of Meall Ruadh but by the middle of January it has reached the cleft, and beams of light begin to track along my bedroom wall.

That wafting cobweb whispered of Christmas endings and family partings; there was clearing up and cleaning to do, but I took comfort from the thought that the extra minutes of daylight caught in the web heralded changes to come. The landscape might look and feel quiet, ‘Nature’ may seem to be sleeping, but already there is noise in our hedges, flickering in the gorse and rushes and bluster in the kelp piles by the shore.

This early January is a strange one. The new month arrived storm-less though with cold north winds, snow and ice, but as they swung around to the east they brought a batch of extraordinary blue days and golden clouds that glowed from within or as if back-lit by lamps, all bookended by fierce red dawns and livid rainbow coloured sunsets. These days were so full of blue and gold and silver magic that each breath in became a gulp of fairy dust and selkie song, breathing out an orison to the living world.

After months of gales and rain followed by heavy snow it has been so very welcome, this crisp freezing spell, and in the calm cold the ground has gradually dried and solidified. Walking across frozen peatland is noisy, like crunching along a gravel path. Sphagnum tops are rigid with ice. Their tiny filaments are mostly made of water so their rigidity holds even my weight as I step on their pale mounds. The fields are no longer quagmires through which I struggle in wellies; iced paths and tracks make for easier walks and the colours of dry rock and stone, no longer black with slick wetness, are bright and cheerful.

On the embankment in the top meadow today I looked carefully at the pitted frozen ground. In summer the slope was pricked with hundreds of small holes, millimetres in diameter, the homes of solitary bees; in autumn I had wondered how their eggs could survive water-logging for the turf leaked and oozed continuously; now in winter I wonder at their ability to survive the repeated freezing and whether ice encrusts the hibernating eggs in their pollen-lined nests. This same steep slope in summer is also carpeted with orchids and their seeds too must be waiting patiently in the grit and frozen earth.

But change is coming, cloud is building from the west, the stillness of morning has given way to a swirling wind. Above me hooded crows are quietly chattering, they chunner and maunder rather than raucously shout.  And just by the hedge the sharp spears of snowdrops have thrust upwards through the ice-bound ground. What prompts their spark into life? I wonder if somehow, after the solstice, light penetrated the soil and sent a secret signal to their slumbering cells or made a cobweb dance.

I’m certain the crows know the nature of the secret signal; they look smug, and taunt me with tales of spring.

 

 

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North winds, ice veils and winter loss

Southerly winds at this time of year often seem angry. To reach us here they must be funnelled through the narrows between Skye’s Cuillin mountains and the heights of Knoydart to then sweep past Applecross. Bursting from confinement at the mouth of the Inner Sound they release pent up energy, often bellowing like stags at the rut, and they ladle water across the landscape. The ground is sodden, small birds fly about in tattered snippets, and deer are on the move, heading out of the high snows down to coastal crofts.

But when north winds blow, the atmosphere becomes so altered that the tall towers of grey cloud and rolling bands of showers from compass points between south and west are often replaced by arctic blues. Moisture content, high ice, light diffraction and deflection coupled with light-charged and transformed seas create broad swathes of colour akin to the above-water and below-surface glacial blues of icebergs. The cold becomes a palpable entity then, something to push against. The diffuse greyness of salted, gusting winds and battleship-greys of the Minch waters vanish as surgings of ice-veils and rainbows roar through the gap between the north-eastern fringes of the Outer Hebrides and the mainland.

 

For a few days last week sea and sky matched each other with paired displays of deep, penetrating light and colour: lapis lazuli and turquoise, lavender and moonstone, mother-of-pearl and alabaster-white. Everywhere gleamed with beautiful yet brutal rawness, but the arctic air also brought mayhem: savage gusts hurled diamond-blue shards of ice, waves tossed salt-grit up the cliffs, and torrents of snow or hail flowed across the hills in horse-tail-herds. This vicious northerly flow has been unusually relentless for November, but now and again there were a few strange periods of relative quiet when cloud cover fragmented allowing the sun to shine through.

Though this morning’s winds had eased a little they were much, much colder. Out across the Minch skies were still laden with shower clouds, some shedding snow across the Hebrides, others tracking closer to the mainland. At times the updraughting air was so violent and fast it took with it the hail and snow it had just released. Down became up as showers defied gravity.

On beach sands wetted by retreating waves, an inverse reflected world returned showers downwards. The stormy waters were firstly the colour of the legendary Blue Men of the Minch and then of burnished cooking pots. As the morning light strengthened it spilled out from under soot-grey cumulus clouds to pour across the Trotternish peninsula. The Old Man of Storr turned from silver to gold.

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I am now at my desk looking north out across bogland smothered in post-sunset purple-greys. The northerly wind is yowling around the house and from the window in the last light of day I can also see the sea. It is a strange colour but I cannot quite put my finger on what is going on nor describe exactly what shade it is. Overhead the sky is almost charcoal grey yet the water glows with spectral light. I get up and move rooms to see what is happening in the south; there the sky is a Dijon-mustard yellow underneath the main blanket of darkening cloud. It reminds me of old daguerreotype images treated with gold-chloride to add warmth. From this south-facing window the sea appears crumpled like crushed tin-foil, then as pale wave crests appear it begins to tear apart. For some reason I am unnerved, this landscape and seascape I know so well now looks brutal, and inhuman.

And how cold it is, and how different from the gilded views of the morning; and how cold I feel looking at that harsh sea and strange light. I turn back to the attic space I’m using as an office (my summer-house-writing-shed is just too icy). I still do not turn on a light because I can see by the sharp glow coming off the snow-covered hills; they become whiter still as the sky continues to curl and shrivel like burnt paper. There is an ethereal luminosity about the place, beautiful yet somehow alien. For some strange reason, and for the first time, I feel uncoupled from the landscape.

I think about dying. There is news of death from everywhere; in Eqypt, a mass bombing;  fleeing refugees from Myanmar; from Argentina, submariners lost in the deeps; and from an adjacent outstretch of land here in Wester Ross, at Applecross, a man of the sea, much loved by his community, lost to the waters of the Inner Sound. His empty boat grounded near his home, so he must have fallen overboard. Everyone is thinking of his family. Many of Gairloch’s boats joined in the sea-searches, and others patrolled the rugged coasts in the hope of finding him safe but stranded. I did not know him but knew his blog and enjoyed his words; his love of landscape and sense of place shone out from his writing.

I can almost taste the bitter cold and feel it pressing against the window now as even the snow-glow dims. Though I love it I feel angry with the sea, and troubled, my spirit pockmarked by ice and spume, and sorrow for the lost fisherman. The Inner Sound has an internal magic and beauty all of its own but now it feels fickle and dangerous, despite the colours and music of its waters, and the overarching skies filled with rainbows and sunsets.

I am no mariner, and get sick as soon as I step on a ship. My husband takes me in his small boat and we slip slowly around the Gair Loch between the skerries and islands of Badachro and Sheildaig to enjoy the altered perspectives of where we live, but I know my limits. So the men of the ocean and coastal waters, the creel-men and scallop divers and deep-sea fishermen, are much admired for their skills and toughness, their beautiful charts and wind knowledge, and understanding of waves and currents.

All I can do is dip my toes in the breaking waves and soak up the spray from the safety of solid ground and enjoy what a sun-dazzling summer sea can do for my inner peace. And in truth I know that despite misgivings about death at sea, a scouring onshore northerly ice-wind with its great billowing curtains of snow and hail and its freezing noise and ice-berg light, will always lift my spirits.

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Alasdair Macleod was a fisherman of Applecross. His creel boat, Varuna, was found on rocks north of Applecross Bay on Monday 20th of November. His blog on Applecross, about fishing, community and life in remote coastal Wester Ross, was a heartfelt and lovely read, and filled with photographs of his beautiful homeland.

He is still lost to the winter waters of the Inner Sound.

 

 

 

Posted in death, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, landscape photography, nature, nature writing, Scotland, sea, Skye, snow, storm, weather, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Whale bones and wintry wilds

Snow appeared on our mountain tops with the back-turning of clocks, just as it usually does, so now days are constricted, confined at each end by swift sunrises and swifter sunsets. Each incremental diurnal shortening can almost be tasted. To catch dawn-dusk colours with a camera requires a nimble exit from the house and a dash to the top field.

November is a fickle month. Gusting winds from the west bring tall charcoal-grey towers loaded with rain, from the north and east come sharp, needle-thin zephyrs that moan as they spit ice and hail while southerlies drive waves of cloud that break across the hills and flash in bar-codes of alternating light and dark.

This is a tumbling, erratic time of year. Although birches begin shedding leaves before any other Highland trees, they are the last to fully give them up. Gradually, snow-white and silver trunks gleam as beams of light reach down deeper into the forests; with leaf-fall the branches are no longer summer russet-brown but are revealed in their truest winter plum-purples. For a time some leaves still cling tightly to the outer edges of each tree so birch woodlands shimmer with the last remaining yellows of autumn. Then in a single day of twisting winds they will fly and for a time the air will effervesce with lemons and oranges. Finally, when the last leaf has vanished, the bare birch-woods will gleam and become silver crowns tipped with gems of dark charoite resting on burnished beds of heather, bilberry and myrtle. Regardless of snow on the high peaks or gales from the west, it is this last magical leaf-flight that truly heralds winter for me.

Our croft fields are sodden. As I walk out and head to the shore the turf oozes water. There has been little respite from torrential rain since early September and now storm winds bring hail and snow so the burns and river run high, breaking their banks and sending sheets of cola-coloured water across our lower meadows. Today the Red River sparkles with silver and jet as cold, frenzied waves rush down to the sea.

At the cliff edge it is almost impossible to stand up straight. High above there are cloud-towers fringed with livid light by a sun trying to restore some heat to the world. Now and again, as gales tear at roaming gangs of cumulonimbus, lustrous beams strike the mountains or flash across the sea. Quickly though the miles-high vertical clouds regroup and soar taller still, foaming and fomenting and bringing with them the threat of thunder, snow and hail. More noise, more deafening sound, is hurled ashore out-shouting wave-break and spreading spume and froth.  I cannot hear the sea-birds or even the wallop of waves as they thump down onto the beach. Everything seems made of sound, even the colours of land and sea, even my heartbeat and breathing. Wind sound, cloud sound; white, blue-grey, charcoal-black curtains; a sea of crumpled tinfoil; a rough and jaggy day of squalls.

And then, for a few moments I am able to stand upright as a rainbow races towards the shore. It explodes in a maelstrom of eye-blinding salt and grit. Violet to green, yellow to red.

There is less violence back at the croft. Birdsong fills the hedges that enclose house and garden and I keep trying (and mostly failing) to identify all the visitors by their voices; some are quarrelsome, others wistful. Robins, wrens, tits and song thrushes are boldest, unafraid of cats, pine martens or dog, quick to the bird table and feeders. Down in the byre there are raiding parties to the storage bins; tell-tale tiny droppings give away mouse-routes from stone wall to door to hay, and this morning there is one small spraint left by a curious otter. I put out feed for the two ancient Shetland ponies that need extra nutrients to combat the cold. And then I hear a familiar call, despite the noise of the wind; high overhead, more like fairy tale dragon than bird, an eagle swims smoothly and confidently despite the parrying gusts.

All across the croft and shore plantlife is battered and bleached of summer colour. What avoided being shredded by gales has been flattened by downpours. This matted, tangled net of vegetation protects underlying soils and peat, cushions of moss cloak tree stumps, boulders and stone walls, and writhes of bramble and whin provide little patches of shelter. The landscape is clothed in an ochre, russet and umber carpet. But here and there, dotted about, are bright spots of vivid green. Crowned often with pink spraint, the nutrient-enriched grass mounds mark strategic locations of ottery passage, and at this time of year they stand out, proud and tall, some as much as a metre in diameter. The largest are old beyond telling, otter kingdom boundary markers that have probably been used for countless generations.

The wet wild weather of recent weeks has not bothered the otters. On one scarp that runs down to the shore from an unused cliff-top croft is a muddy channel, slick with brown water. It is so smoothed by repeated otter-belly sliding it resembles an old, well-used children’s slide in a city park.

But the storm winds have brought death to our shore. A young minke whale was washed up by the September equinox high tide, its body battered and broken, flippers and tail lost, great scars along its side. What killed it will never be known. For a time, the carcass provided food for many: different types of birds, insects and other carrion eaters. Now only a few bones remain scattered here and there along the shingle shore, tangled up in seaweed and rope. No doubt the winter will bring other deaths. Only the very tough and canny will survive the seasonal tempests and hurricane force winds.

The cetacean’s bones are big and beautiful, and almost too human in form, so I feel its loss deeply.  I have retrieved a few vertebrae as keepsakes of the whale and the stormy seas that brought it to our shore.

They will be a reminder of the fragility of a life in the wilds, not least my own.

 

 

 

Posted in birds, bones, coasts, death, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, nature writing, otters, photography, Scotland, sea, Storms, Uncategorized, walking, weather, whales, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife encounters, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Limestone homecoming and olive trees

For a few years I took groups of university students to Mallorca. It was both a privilege and a pleasure; hard work but great fun. Through fieldwork we investigated the island’s mountain and coastal landscapes and tried to piece together the natural and anthropogenic factors that contribute to their very particular character. Now with UNESCO World Heritage status, the high mountains and rugged coasts of the Serra de Tramuntana are remarkable and beautifully wild, yet they have a long history of human occupation. The limestone geology has exerted considerable structural control on landforms, soils and vegetation resulting in a unique landscape of serrated mountains and deep gorges. Over thousands of years people built stone terraces, complex water management systems, villages and steep footpaths; they managed woodlands and created groves of olive, citrus, almond and carob. Coupled with the Mediterranean climate it is a heady combination, a sensory salpicón.

Our recent family holiday retreat (from Scotland’s damp winds and cold grey squalls) thus came as a blessing, a most welcome return visit. The contrast with Wester Ross could not have been greater: dry September heat and long days of sunshine squeezed resinous scents of pine and lemon from crisp leaves and wrung essences of Earth herself from rust-red and ochre soils. Fluted columns and serrated edges of limestone puncture the maquis and garrigue covered slopes while great bulbous overhangs and crags are stained by iron rich residues that testify to the movement of unseen water.

Over the past week I had not realised how much I missed limestone. Apart from the odd strangely weathered erratic abandoned by ice thousands of years ago there is no limestone near my Highland home. And yet it is a rock I know and love. From the great ramparts of Dun Aengus on the Arran Isles of western Ireland to the clinted and gryked platforms of north Lancashire, limestone induces a rather special and familiar sense of place. Stepping onto it feels comfortable, as if the rock actually knows me, more than I know it. From time to time I wonder if it recognises a long-standing legacy of association with limestone that is tucked away, inside my genetic coding. The O’Garras/O’Garas are from western Ireland’s limestone territory so that may partly explain it; they in turn, so it is thought, came with sea farers from the Mediterranean limestone regions. And in Spain there is even a village called Ogarrio.

So to be in Mallorca amongst the karst and olive groves is akin to a homecoming. Remembering happy fieldtrips with students studying the enormous ancient terraces, weird rillenkaren rock formations and strange plants, reinforces that feeling. There is much to be gained from books and in lectures but nothing compares to finding things out ‘in the field’. To see student faces light up with new found understanding and a delight that matched my own was one of the greatest pleasures of teaching. Limestone and happiness! The relationship I have with Mallorca and with limestone is therefore a complex, multi-layered affair, rather like the geology itself, and of course, those incredible terraces.

The Tramuntana range is home to forests of Holm Oak, Aleppo Pine and scented, resinous scrub as well as the geologic formations that would grace any fantasy novel or fairy tale. Some of the woodlands are very old; descriptions of oak woods and terracing in the Lluc basin appear in Roman texts. And so to encounter an ancient tree is to meet with an organism that knows things. But even expertise accumulated by years of study and research is humbled in the presence of a living entity that was elderly when King James I of Aragon (Jaume el Conqueridor) recaptured Palma in 1229. There are olive trees in the Serra de Tramuntana more than 1000 years old, many could be more than double that. They have survived on the high terraces because these places have been managed by people for thousands of years. Olives and olive oil production is at least 8000 years old (the pollen grains of domesticated olive appear in the sedimentary records from that time) and so it is highly likely that the process of domestication began long before that.

 

Every opportunity to see and touch (and hug) ancient olive trees feels like a blessing. Their gnarled and knotted bark ripples with the passage of time; the twisted roots and branches are testament to their understanding of and intimacy with rock, water and air; they are creatures of the elementals; they commune with the very fundamental essences of Earth herself, and with deep time. And yet they are also creatures of a human world; they need to be cared for, to have rock walls and water channels carefully engineered to ensure longevity and vitality. Therefore, just as communities know and understand olive groves, the trees also have close bonds with people and, I like to think, with their stories. Walk up through the ancient terraces of Lluc, pause now and then to listen to mountain breezes shuffling the leaves and you will hear voices from the remote past. They are stored in the curling, crinkled bark and if you sit for a while with your back to an olive’s trunk the storytelling emerges. Run your hands up and down its ‘skin’ and the living essence merges with your own. Before long heart and mind will be captivated and then you too will want to walk amongst them again and again.

After being reunited with the ancient olives and terraces of the Serra de Tramuntana much of our holiday was spent by the sea.

 

 

The world is very different when viewed through the eyes of a five month old baby girl. But she experienced for the first time the vivid pinks of bougainvillea and bright oranges and yellows of the bean trefoil, and the dazzling blues of sea, sky and pool. She watched the tramuntana wind blow through the trees and vine leaves and heard the waves lap the pale dun sandy shore at Formentor. Will she remember the colours, scents and sounds? Maybe. Perhaps many years in the future she will step onto a Mediterranean island and it will feel like a homecoming of sorts, and she will remember breathing in the rich, dry air of the olive groves as she was carried by her grandmother.

Now I am home. Through the window I can see that the land has been burnished in the short time I was away. Grasses have been dipped in copper, heather blooms in pewter. Pale gold pennies from silver birches float in the wind and orange larch needles blanket the roadside. Beyond the croft the sea is the colour of Mallorcan limestone, waves are crested and fluted like rillenkaren, and I am sure that the salted air has just blown faint scents of lemon, olive and red earth in through the open door.

 

 

Posted in archaeology, beaches, Formentor, karst, limestone, Lluc, Mallorca, Mediterranean, Mediterranean holidays, Mediterranean vegetation, olive groves, olive trees, rillenkaren, Serra de Tramuntana, terraces, university teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dog biscuits, ravens and the end of summer

Over the last few days high tides and a scouring north westerly wind whipped up coffee coloured foam and piled it high. Gusts carried salt and globules of froth to stick on my cheeks and glasses. Gone are the sand castles of summer holiday-makers; instead there are fragile, unstable towers wobbling and shivering, heaps of rust and green seaweed and a few abandoned pieces of wood, blackened by the campfires of visitors. Sadly this is no golden September or ‘Indian summer’ but a feisty re-churning of the weather systems that brought alternating sunshine and showers to Wester Ross through the whole of August. And while hurricanes sweep through the western Atlantic the changeable weather here is just a small reminder of how atmospheric and ocean dynamics control so much of our lives.

As dog and I pathered along the coast path and down to the beach this morning, Skye and the Outer Hebrides slowly emerged from a dull grey shapeless horizon. Rolling clouds began to fracture, gradually uncovering pale turquoise and peachy patches of clear sky. In the gaps between showers I could see houses on Skye, and for a few moments the stripes of Kilt Rock, some 14 miles away across the Inner Sound, gleamed before disappearing in pale haze.

Water is still streaming down the hillsides finding new routes to the sea after all the heavy rain. As Dog and I reached the shore-path a solitary otter slithered and splashed along one of the rivulets, slinking under a fence and between boulders. He stopped, caught my eye and then dashed into the waves. A few seconds later he surfaced and floated on his back looking directly at us. Dog began nosing amongst the seaweed and rocks but the otter took no notice; instead he watched me, until perhaps satisfied that I was not going to interfere with his crabbing, he rolled over and vanished into the waves.

As the otter disappeared a cawing noise swirled about somewhere. Looking about I missed any final glances of ottery curiosity that may have emerged from the water but then spied three ravens flying along the cliff edge. They may have been looking for creatures driven out from their holes by the pouring waters or hiding under tufts of heather. I held a dog biscuit in my outstretched hand wondering if that would entice them nearer. The largest raven flew back and began to circle above us; he cawed loudly and looked down, seeming to inspect what I offered him. And then the other two joined in, also curious. I have not seen ravens on this small stretch of coast before and for me the encounter was ‘a first’. They flew close until Dog realised I held one of his treats and came to sit next to me.  I watched as the ravens flew away over the hill while Dog waited patiently for his biscuit.

The overt boldness of birds and otter is the surest sign that summer is over, that the holiday season has ended. Our small beach has been busier than ever this year reflecting the large increases in tourist visitors to the Highlands that many are reporting. Family and friends have been coming to visit thick and fast for most of July and August, so our croft too has been a busy place.

These two months in the Highlands are usually characterised by a mixture of sunshine and showers, heather bloom and biting midges. And for almost all of August vigorous showers swept in from the west flowing swiftly behind thick ruffles of indigo and grey cloud. None lasted long; they were interrupted by brighter spells and occasionally by several consecutive days of sunny warmth and dazzling light.

Despite increased rainfall the air has been thick with sweets scents of heather, myrtle and juicy grass-growth, and with buzzing bees. Dragon flies, damsel flies and other long-winged and brightly coloured insects danced over bog pools and ditches and skipped along the river; and in the warm, moist conditions wild flowers have bloomed especially along the river bank.

The coast has glowed with rich, ripe colour in wet spells: russet beaches, aquamarine seas and purple-blue clouds.

Warm and shower-free days blinked brightly with azure waters, lemon and turquoise skies and apricot sands. When clouds and sunshine followed on quickly from one another the sea appeared to be diamond crusted, the sky made of jet and tourmaline.

On the beach, whether wet or dry, the squeals and excitement of children merged with the sounds of singing waves and boisterous sea breezes, and for a time otter and seabird footprints were replaced by various digging and castle-building enterprises.

 

Now the evidence of creaturely activity is all around us again: footprints, spraint, nibbled crab’s legs, mysterious holes in heather and grass, droppings on rocks, bent stems and muddy scrapings. And once again it is the voices of wilder things that spread out across the landscape and come knocking at my door.

Normal service has been resumed.

 

 

Posted in beaches, birds, coasts, encounters with wildlife, environment, experiencing nature, holidays, landscape, nature, otters, photography, Scotland, sea, Skye, summer, wilderness, wildlife, wildlife encounters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments