Nearly a month past the Yuletide solstice and our Highland winter is waxing not waning. Snow has been coming and going, together with ice and hail, occasional bursts of thunder and lightning, storm force winds and sub-zero temperatures. We have been caught up in a battle between glacial airs from the polar north and east and the warmer, wetter and much windier Atlantic westerlies. I often write about the effects of wind and rain and cold, for they feature heavily in the daily struggles of wildlife (and crofters) especially in the depths of winter. But recent skirmishes have been about more about light, the solstician lack of it or its ability to utterly alter the landscape, from cloud-wrapped dark-grey slopes and misty valleys to a magical land of faerie where rocks shine with topaz and opal, neon-lit lichens set ancient trees aflame and waves slosh with liquid silver and gold. Since Christmas such changes to and fro have been swift, often catching the unwary but prompting pauses and gasps when the skies themselves have lit up or when the ice, in seizing the world for itself, encasing it in glittering crystal, has mirrored the heavens.
Wildlife in the Red River valley, in the croft fields, in woodlands and on surrounding mountains has been struggling with the unpredictable nature of this wild weather. January is a hard time of the year, light or no light. Food supplies are poor: only a few wrinkled berries remain on briar and in hedgerow, and fields are battered low by floods, rains and wind. Yet the winter songs are still sung boldly and brightly, and hidden away and sleeping deeply are promises of spring and summer life. But there is a long, hard winter still to get through and many little lives will be lost.
Earlier this week, after a show-stopping sunrise and the promise of ‘interesting’ weather from the Met Office, we stepped out to follow the shore trail in the hope of beating the worst of the promised northerlies to come.
Dog was not bothered but I should not have got sidetracked watching the sun come up. The bitter, callous polar-winds were already here, earlier than promised. Pulling my hat down over my ears did not help much, but off we went.
Glowing two metre waves were throwing themselves at the rocky shore, some scooting high into the air to challenge the yowling winds. Across the unravelling sea the sky consisted of dark, gunmetal bands heralding oncoming squalls of ice, yet high above the low-slung darkness glaringly bright sulphurous-white clouds seethed. They moved fast. Swift up-draughts appeared to force the showers into new directions, contorting and folding them over on themselves, so in their fierce whiteness they looked like ticks on an old school chalkboard. “There’s thunder in this roiling mass,” I thought, “lightning with my name on it”. (I have been caught before and almost singed; it makes me nervous.) As if in reply to that thought a flash marked out the northern edge of the leading curtain of cloud.
All along the path by the shore were gifts from the dawn’s high tide: kelp and rock-cobbles thrown about in haphazard piles. If I had arrived earlier the sea would have been just too boisterous to walk safely there. Chunks of path had been gouged out, and the field drains and little burns trying to run down to the sea were blocked by debris. There’s a lot of reorganisation being done by the north winds and wild waves this winter.
As the wind buffeted yet again, I turned my face away from the first stinging hailstones and headed back up the cliff. At the top I had to bend double, like an old crone, to balance myself by the edge. Dog skipped about with no cares at all except to sigh at my slowness and inability to throw his stick more than a few feet. The hail turned quickly to snow. It was easier to face the sea then for even the hardest driven flakes are softer than the nails and shards of hail.
I am always surprised at how quickly the sky and sea change their moods. This interaction between elements is much more than a conversation; on days such as this it is a competition. Who is the fairest of them all? Who is the wildest? But I do love the rowdiness and the noise; it gets the blood circulating and no one can hear my panting as I climb. And it feels wild and it makes me laugh out loud.
Below, amidst the heaps of kelp, rock pipits hopped and pseep-pseeped as they searched for food. Astonished, I paused to watch; they could be heard even above the building wind and wallop of waves from my spot on the clifftop. How much energy those tiny birds require to sing so loudly, yet sing they did, as they bobbed about fluttering from kelp pile to strand-line heap in search of food.
In the hedges, along the ditch edges and bobbing about in the rushes, away from the worst of the biting wind, other little birds rushed about picking at this, pecking at that, in the desperate search for food. Their stoic yet noisy cheerfulness and feathered fluffiness in the face of these heavy and bitterly cold showers is astounding. The winds which whipped along the shore lost some of their sting in the gentle hollows of the croft fields. And dancing between clumps of bedraggled rushes were six thrushes, heads tilting as they paused, breasts proudly spotted as they hopped about, wings flashing as they flew. Nearer the river, where the winter grass has been flattened by flood waters and cropped short, a squadron of geese gabbled and prattled. They lifted their heads in unison, cackled and carried on pathering about as they fed. Only when dog decided he needed to say hello did they lift up in a trumpeting fanfare of pink feet, feathers and honking.
Later, the north winds brought fresh, crisp snow to the hills, and a wintery light which flickered and failed repeatedly, intensely stroboscopic. It felt more cold and spiteful than usual probably because it had followed hard on the heels of a blissfully calm interlude.
As eastern Scotland and the north of England struggled with deluge and flood (conditions much more common here) Wester Ross froze. For several days the only breeze was an icy cold kiss from the east which slurped across the mountains as it came, bringing mists of white magic that crept through the gaps and clefts in the Torridon mountains and down the Red River valley. This calm, slow moving, invisible ice-air-river sailed steadily westwards and as it did so it stilled the waters, hushed the waves and frosted up puddles.
Here in the far north mid-winter light is low angled even at noon, and on these few clear, calm days the sun’s beams were long and their touch was golden. On the beach the fragile rays of warmth and magic delicately picked out all the finest tracery of sand grain, kelp-leaf and barnacle. For a time the beach sands were frozen in ice crystals of umber and ochre, perhaps like the surface of Mars, and they crunched tastily underfoot. Quartz grains sparkled and glinted and twinkled merrily like a starry night sky. At low tide bright turquoise and violet waters sluiced slowly across the shelving sands, shimmied between cobbles and boulders and carved, with all the skill of a master sculptor, tiny gullies, canyons, meanders and braids. Sandy ripples captured the shining waters in bands of mercury while shell-studded rocks cast long shadows of purple and indigo. Stone glowed in amber, gold, crimson, cadmium, viridian, emerald and opal.
To breathe in and out on such days, when the whisper of wind was as gentle as a baby’s breath but as cold as the snows of the Russian tundra, is eye-watering. But with each intake of cold air you absorb the jewels and riches of the very wild earth itself. And the sea. And the sky.
And in the wet sand, freshly released by the salty waves, an imaginary artist had painted clouds and sky and light, so that real and abstract images passed to and fro, like gateways into other worlds. As I crunched and then sloshed along the shore the baby’s breath picked up my thoughts, wishes and words, wrapped them in ice, and carried them off to the west.