The world is turning, there is a palpable sense of shifting and change. It is the winter solstice and after today, the hours of sunlight will begin to slowly, steadily increase. But the last few days leading up to the shortest day have been strange. December has been full of ice and snow, then frantic melt and flood, warm winds and puzzled wildlife, and today, at midday, the gales were frantically twisting and turning, the sea tossing and churning, whipping up froth and foam and snatching away all conscious thoughts and sending them up high into the maelstrom. It was as if the faerie mystery and magic of the solstice were reacting to a more substantive metamorphosis.
Before the storm winds returned and for a brief hiatus following 36 consecutive days of rain, a spell of stinging cold enveloped us, with snow deep on the hills and ice-glass sculptures in ponds and puddles. Leaves that had resisted the recent gales and near tropical deluges were fringed with shining rime. Even the kelp fronds, tossed ashore by Neptune’s noisome and glowing green waves, could not resist the bite of ice. An arctic calm of bright crystal and diamond shards encased the wild coast lands, and high mountains seemed cryogenically frozen in the stiff, dense air. As I wrote my Christmas cards a round, crimson-breasted robin bounced across the lawn, his eyes fierce and bold, unafraid and apparently untouched by the frosty cold, and an emblem for these mid-winter times. I should have been outside!
For these few short days sunrise lit up the billions of ice jewels scattered across the landscape which in turn reflected bands of peaches and cream, lemon-marzipan and raspberry-ripple back to the heavens. Mid-winter sun is late, very late, to over-top the mountains in the east beyond the croft. And on these cloud free mornings beams of warmth, slowly, bit by bit, spread across the Red River valley, gently tapping the shoulders of this hummock or that boulder, this house or that byre, reminding each of their daily tasks and humbly prodding us all into wakefulness. Later, at sunset, the world turned scarlet, orange and turquoise, with bright luminescent flashes as light was reflected in croft windows, until finally a deep Prussian-blue sky glittered with starlight so intense that it was possible to navigate paths by the glow from the Milky Way.
The mid-winter dark is here; and now that the rains and gales and clouds have returned, shooing the ice back to the remoter north, daylight can be as bland and colourless as old dishwater that has lost its bubbles. Mountains swirl in and out of vision, islands appear and disappear, sea and shore and sky merge into greyness, and plants thrash about in the wet, heavy turbulence, machair grasses bent into wave forms.
And yet, even on the greyest and wettest and wildest of dishwater-days, there are fleeting moments when the skies part and cascades of lemon light flush across the hills and out over the tossing, fighting waves. How the heavens shine then. The glow is blinding but the soul sings and the body laughs out loud at the suddenness of the magic. That is the wonder of a mid-winter stravaig: you can be battered and stinging from the pitiless showers of ice and water and find it difficult to walk straight and be upright in the brutal gusts and gales, and then suddenly eyes are blinded by flashes of brilliance and phosphorescence.
When the sun finally dips down and sinks behind Skye all is enveloped in the deep, thick quilt of winter solstice darkness. Few lights can be seen: a pale yellow splash here and there from an outside lamp on a byre; occasional twinned headlamps from a vehicle; red eyes of sheep or deer reflecting back a torch beam; the warm orange glow from a hastily opened front door. There’s little in the way of decorative Christmas lighting until we step through into the warm welcome of a kitchen or living room. But on Red River Croft, for the second year in a row, we have strung up some small coloured lights on a tree by the main gate. They swing wildly but joyfully in the gales, our own pretty Yuletide illuminations, and because of the blanket of winter dark they can be seen from far away and from high on the hills surrounding the croft. They would be utterly lost on a city street. Somehow, these little lights outside and the festive greenery and radiance inside has much more meaning when all around us seems to be the viscous emptiness of the night. We need the lighting and love it for its cheerfulness. And sitting by the fire it is hard not to reflect upon ancient traditions of mid-winter darkness, of Christmas, and of family and friends who can no longer share the warmth and the light with us, and in the remembering, we can laugh and rejoice in the lives gone but well-lived, and the much-longed for light of Spring.
But it is impossible at this time of year not to be drawn to the skies again and again, to peep between the curtains to see where the moon is or whether the clouds have run away. Occasionally, the deep dark of winter nights can bring the lights of heaven itself to our festive rejoicing. When the clouds kindly part or vanish across the hills, the little Christmas fairy lights on the tree by the croft gate are overwhelmed by the dazzling, glittering jewel-studded canopy overhead, and by the wide band of the Milky Way. And in the deepness of mid-winter, when we stand at the top of the little cliff, the great river of stars appears to flow over us from East to West, in the same direction as our little Red River runs, Nile-like, through the croft, while mighty Orion blazes proudly over the Baosbheinn. And if we are very lucky, another cosmic treasure blossoms in the north sky: the Aurora Borealis, aflame in neon greens and burnished reds, shimmering and surging in magical waves and soundless oscillations.
Today at the Solstice, for a few short hours, the mid-day sun poured light through flashing veils of silver showers. Birds twisted and tumbled through the air. Winds and waters sang in glorious accompaniment. Magic was in the air and, yes, the world turned.