May Day and the icy end of April

May blew in last night from the south. Around midnight windows rattled and doors banged as winds slewed about the croft house. So much raucous energy needing space; and here by the coast it tumbled and shouted and threw buckets of warm water about. This morning there was little snow left on mountain peaks, just a few thin, watered down splatters to remind us of the recent cold. But that may yet change, snow showers are known in June.

Last week the Arctic came to play bringing eye-watering weather. Winter showers are not unusual in a Highland April and crofters speak wisely of ‘lambing-snow’ and ‘cuckoo-snow’. Usually the salty coast escapes but in this strangely bright spell of freezing, snow was strewn amongst the boulders, across the sands and around the Marram grass.

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Temperatures plummeted and winds blew directly from the high and icy north. For days we walked about with summer sun-glasses to cope with the flaring yellow brilliance and piercing cerulean skies. (I have more wrinkles now from all my squinting, I think.) In between the lancing turquoise of the stratosphere enormous clouds grew heavenwards and then sailed over us bringing snow storms booming with thunder, spinning-top winds to curdle birdsong, and rainbows so big they spanned the horizon from the Old Man of Storr on Skye to the Point of Ness on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

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At times clouds were splayed across the whole sky as if tins of brilliant white paint had been thrown against a blue painted wall. And they have been brimming with ice, hail and snow.

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As if all the north were pulsing with energy the sky has shimmered with coruscating blues and incandescent whites, blinding eyes like an unexpected firework on a black November night. Periodically the sun has vanished behind dark devilry and grey showers, while the sea has seemed smeared with dirt, a dusty windowsill under tattered grey and billowing curtains. The speed of change from light to gloom, warm to freezing has been breathtakingly fast; hat on, hat off, hat on, hat off.

Our mountains too have been wrapped and unwrapped by snows, their feet wreathed in curling mists, or crowned by roiling clouds; they have been pink-faced in setting sun and grimly hoary yet defiant in the heaviest deluge.

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When the north winds blow they seek out and invade every nook and cranny. At the coast it is difficult to find a warm spot of shelter as icy winds push cold aquamarine waves through the gap between us on the mainland and the Outer Hebrides. But it is possible. And where the frigid cold cannot quite reach and where the sun can warm cheeks or backs, many tend to congregate. I can pick a suitably sheltered south-facing stone on the cliffs and after a few minutes of stillness, eye closed, face raised to the sun, I realise I am not alone: rock pipits piping, curlews calling, bees buzzing across a carpet of wild thyme and there, the whip-tail of a mouse.

And all around, on boulders and crags, are mats of crunchy pale grey lichens, with patches of thrift whose first unfurling flowers are fuschia pink. Here and there, where soil has accumulated in little pockets, sedge tips push skywards, while the scented buds of myrtle, tiny green sprouting leaves of heather and pale fluffy buds of dwarf willow enjoy the sunshine as much as me.

Summer residents have begun to arrive in the last fortnight: bonxies, dark and powerful, swooping along the low cliffs, wheatears with black burglar’s eye-masks and stone chats, cheerfully and noisily bobbing from fence post to boulder. Winter stalwarts too have been enjoying snatches of warm sun in between ice and snow: the sea eagle standing on his favourite rock just above high tide, harried by hoodies, yet ignoring their pestering, has gazed out to sea, like an old sailor remembering his fishing trips on the high seas. And in the croft gardens the swelling noise of little voices as they hurry to gather moss and feathers for nests is almost deafening. There is such unfettered joy at the flush of life and coming warmth in those small hearts and lungs.

Now moisture glistens and softens everything. Warm May Day airs from the south and west have brought wetness. With luck this will encourage the grass to grow; shards of livid green are still short and we need the ground to warm up quickly. Across the machair and meadows there is still a cacophony of happiness: birds are singing, bees are buzzing and lambs are bleating, they are ready even if the grass is slow.

Cuckoos have been heard to the north of us in Inverasdale but they are not here yet. I hope our South Erradalian Cuculidae have not succumbed to hunters on their long journey.

But the first swallow has been seen and the top half of the byre door is propped open, waiting for others.

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About Annie O'G Worsley

I'm a mum of four, gran, writer, crofter & Professor of 'Environmental Change'. I now live on a small farm (known as a croft) by the sea in a place surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the Scottish NW Highlands. I was a full-time academic, a geographer, but I decided to go feral and follow my dream of living a smaller, simpler, wilder life. I have always loved wild places. As a child I was inspired by tales of Trader Horn (my great-great-great uncle Alfred Aloysius Smith) told to me by my mother. Trader Horn spent his life wandering, mostly in Africa. I too, love stravaiging (Gaelic for wandering) and spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea as a young researcher, living with tribes there. Although I spent years researching and teaching university students about environments, processes and habitats, I am discovering much, much more exploring the wilds around me. In moving away from scientific writing, I have rediscovered my wilder self and have a much deeper, truer understanding of nature than I ever had before. My work is published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place. I continue to write academic papers with my research colleagues but I am developing new skills including landscape photography and painting. And of course, I still love to wander.
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