Otter Kingdom

June is upon us, and the radio has reminded me that summer is ‘officially’ here. We divide the year up into practical, bite-sized wedges yet in this wild country life is governed by weather and light in a topsy-turvy maelstrom of seasonality that rushes to us from the ocean: spring, winter, spring, summer, winter, summer. This churning over, this upheaval, is more chaotic than I have known elsewhere. But it is An t-Òg-mhios, June, and the new season has been formally announced, though in truth summer has been merrily dancing around the croft for much of May. A Highland summer, a summer of piercingly bright clear skies, warmth and perfume, of azure seas and dribbling burns, arrived quickly on the cold heels of a short, extra spell of winter. It came with heat, glorious heat; and we have been washed and cocooned by it all.

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With the warmth grasses quickly began to point at the sun and in a few short weeks some started to flower. The few old and stunted trees on the river banks were enveloped in delicate, pale mists as fluffy lemon-butter catkins blossomed. Late in the evenings, as the sun finally set, each tiny flower flashed momentarily, like soundless fireworks seen at great distance in the night sky. In the mornings the trees smoked as creamy pollen lifted in the gentle, rising air to be carried away across the fields. Now, following this burst of energetic flowering the catkins have disappeared leaving behind bright green, new leaves.

After so much warmth and light there are new surprises along the river. Bluebells nod among the unfurling fronds of bracken; they are small and delicate with the gentle purple-blue  haziness of mountains seen from great distance. Bracken fronds are sinuous volutes, like sculpted scrolls of Stradivarius violins, and in recent days they have begun to uncurl, stretching and extending sunwards. Plantains wear headdresses of tiny stars while meadow buttercups pulse with the sharp yellow light of hot sulphur. Patches of cotton grasses have begun to appear on the bogs, bobbing and nodding in the gentle breezes, dense enough to look like flurries of snow settling in early winter. And along the river margins, taking advantage of the very low, red and trickling waters, are new plants not often seen here: thick stemmed reeds and straight-backed legions of horsetails.

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As each afternoon has loped along through the thickening atmosphere it has almost been possible to hear the growth of green and yellow life as an undertone to the day’s work, audible despite the sea breezes. It is a joyous sound and accompanied by tingling sensations in mind and body. The land is swelling; it is succulent, fleshy and verdant. We are wallowing in it all, savouring the juiciness, tanginess and mouth-watering aromas; it is like sipping the first good coffee of the day or biting into a freshly picked strawberry.

Now the days are so long as we approach the summer solstice there is barely any darkness left, just a few deeper shadows hidden in hollows or tucked away in nooks and crannies. On a cloudless night it is possible to walk outside without a torch. Birdsong fizzles away around eleven as the mistle thrush sings out his farewells, but some three hours later he is back atop his perch calling us all to the day. How much energy and determination these tiny hearts and lungs require to sing for so many hours while feeding their young? I remember my own nights of snatched naps sitting upright in chairs as I nursed, wearily wishing for my bed.

For all the colour and joy of summer songs this is still a fierce place. Life and death hang by the finest threads. The instinct to feed their young is powerful and drives small birds from the safety of hedge and woodland, or from clumps of heather and tufted rushes, out across the croft fields; finches, tits, meadow pipits, skylarks, stonechats, whinchats and many others. Time and time again, in a flashing blur of motion and a grey speckled corkscrew of wings, small birds are taken. Once, a larger bird, a thrush maybe, was snatched from the fields by a peregrine in a thrilling near-vertical plummet of ghostly greys, and I was stopped in my tracks by the suddenness of it all. It happened so quickly and reminded me of a description I once heard, of pieces of rock picked up from the surface of the moon and hurled by invisible solar winds straight down to earth. Hunter and prey vanished in a swirl of moon-dust, and only the cuckoo’s voices, so redolent of an English woodland, could be heard.

Even so, in the lengthening days, wildlife has bloomed, soil and peat have warmed and dried. The sea has vibrated in turquoise and blue reflecting cloudless skies. In the gentle silver-grey hours following the last fires of sunset, the ground has shrugged off remnant heat in a potpourri that slurped in through windows and doors still open to the world. Before the arrival of midges we have been enjoying the balm and relaxing in the herbal bath that is this wild country.

It is an easy pleasure to wander away from the coastal paths when the ground is dry. There are signs that others have been enjoying the wild stravaiging too for there is otter spraint everywhere. In one spot, close to the little bay where our Red River tumbles down from the croft in a series of rock steps to meet the sea, there is a large mound. It is made almost entirely of spraint. Year upon year of scented boundary marking by countless generations of otters are layered carefully and precisely in this one place. The spraint heap, with its surrounding enriched grassy slopes, is so well defined that it stands tall and broad, as clear to any otter as a standing stone in a henge is to us.

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The river also signifies a human edge-land. There is a North as well as a South Erradale. Each is a river valley which some believe mark the outermost edges of an ancient, most likely Norse, fiefdom. In old Gaelic ‘earr’ means boundary,  ‘dal’ a meadow or field, and so logic and history suggest Erradale refers to ancient boundary fields. There are certainly collapsed relic-walls in our valley which delineate pre-crofting parcels of ground, and it is not hard to imagine or understand the layout of a Viking fiefdom here, or perhaps an even older one. But I also like the more fanciful idea that the valleys perhaps once belonged to a princess called Erra whose story is now thoroughly lost amongst the hills and heather.

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Now, having found the mounded evidence by the river, the notion that otters have been marking out and then remembering their ancient forbears while maintaining the borders of their kingdoms is simply marvellous. An otter kingdom by the sea, in which these beautiful animals have used the same landscape features as humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

And there is evidence of other otterine interactions with our world. They have been making forays into croft buildings and leaving spraint there. What is their message I wonder? A simple egg-hunt? Or a reminder that this is their country after all.

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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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2 Responses to Otter Kingdom

  1. Beautiful. I just arrived in South Erradale this evening. A post dinner leg stretch on the crofts above the road eased all my city-stress away. Bog myrtle perfume and bog cotton backlit by the slowly sinking sun….lighting up the Torridonian sandstone boulders more pink than ever. A cuckoo calling constantly from about 9:30pm, flitting from post to tree and back again. It’s clear it’s been dry here, the ground is scratchy and cracked!

    Liked by 1 person

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