Last year the skylarks sang on a cold, yet bright and blustery first day of spring and I remember feeling so joyful that I felt I should sing too. And fly! These doughty little birds are later this year. On a greyish day towards the end of the first week of March, I heard them for the first time and witnessed their first tentative uplifts as they rose, bouncing higher and higher on the back of salty gusts of wind. About four metres above the ground, as if waking from a fairytale magic spell, they shook themselves and burst into song. Just a few individuals to begin with and then, as others caught the excitement in those voices, they too rose up from clumps of grass and heather. I felt the same thrill as the year before and began to hum as I walked.
Actually the rising of skylarks might not have been later than last year. They probably did begin to sing on St David’s day. I think my ears have been less attuned because all winter long I have had a hat jammed down hard over my head. In fact I’ve worn two; a walker’s peaked, waterproof hat with earflaps, with a traditional woolly one on top. A peculiar arrangement but very effective. And so I’ve been double-hatted for the storm force winds and biting cold ‘double-whammies’ of winter, and some sounds have been muffled.
February has been a bitter month, but at times incandescent. The wind chill effect has lowered temperatures consistently and the snowfall has been substantial. Beyond our croft fields and Erradale valley the mountains have been swathed in deep snow like cakes decorated with fondant icing, the detail of their rocky crags and ramparts almost indiscernible. In late afternoons the snow-blankets have flushed with pink, peach and pale turquoise and looked like heaps of marshmallows.
Down here by the sea, the fields, ditches and bog pools froze, grasses and mosses crystallized into delicate glass latticework, the shrubs and trees were dusted with icing sugar, and in places, the little iced-pools have looked like windows into a subterranean world, their glass formed of jet and tourmaline, rather than silica-sand and limestone.
Ice has come and gone and snow showers have blown through. Some days have been blue-bright, glacial and lustrous while gelid, cloud-free nights have pulsed and flashed with neon and the glitter of stars.
Occasionally a thin, north easterly wind has dampened down the surface of the sea turning it into a shimmering pearlescent blue-green mirror, though large, slow-moving waves topped by spindrift and foam, were still pushed benignly to the shore. When the surf met frozen sand the sound was of glasses being broken over and over again and crushed underfoot. Where the waves retreated from stones and beach cobbles it was like hundreds of firecrackers being set off in a city street for Chinese New Year.
Snow has been carried to us on sharp northerly gales sweeping over the Minch in tightly packed bands of colour, darkening and lightening as cloud density and light have waxed and waned. Dark showers, the colour of wicked bruises, have been dragged across the sea, flowing and rippling in protest below thick pale-grey clouds, as if stagnant water were being poured from an old bucket. Others have gleamed and shimmered like white lace at an open window through which you can see the shadows of distant islands. And time and time again, along the horizon, sea and sky appear to have grasped one another, merging in mother-of-pearl embraces, as rainbows have scurried from north to south.
But even as the Arctic cold has repeatedly slipped south to bite and gnaw, daylight has steadily intensified and the days have yawned and begun to stretch out.
Sometimes the skies have been completely cloudless, the sea still and the air calm. Then, by mid afternoon, the sun’s rays have managed to thread their way through the icy atmosphere and warm the ground here and there. And with the warmth, the skylarks have found renewed vigour and begun to climb much higher, their voices strengthening all the time. In hedges and patches of woodland, and across croft meadows too, there is more rushing and pushing as feathers are fluffed, voices raised and hearts energised. And dancing over melting ice in pools and puddles are tiny flies, their wings like pin-pricks of flickering diamonds in the sunlight. How good it feels to have the sun on my face and see the rising of life after so much cold.
We are rushing now to the Spring equinox. The air is warming. But chasing away the snow and ice, shooing away winter’s bite, are the winds and rains of Atlantic squalls, and for a time our seas and skies will become battlegrounds. Yet growing light and warmth will compensate us for the wildness and fickleness of these storms, and the struggles of wildlife, their voices and flickering wings, will continue undeterred, and the urge to breed young will become unstoppable.
And on the shore walk I will need to be double-hatted for a while longer.