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.
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.
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.