Our run of summery weather came to an end over a week ago, the bright blues and warm sunshine hassled and bullied into submission by bands of misty rain and pearl-grey clouds. For the first time in many weeks I was woken by the sound of falling rain; gently falling not pouring, and certainly not the more common squally rains that accompany Atlantic storms. In the spectral lightness of a summer night a gentle shushing trickled in through the open window and nudged me into wakefulness. It was reminiscent of curtains billowing in a strong breeze; or children whispering in a classroom when silence has been asked for; or the rustle of a wedding dress as it is slipped over a bride’s head on her wedding day. Weeks of dry summer weather had ended.
Rain was descending vertically (usually it comes at us sideways) and the manner of its falling was so soothing and delicate it made me think of tears. Silver tears. Not the fierce weeping that accompanies physical hurt but the stoic, quiet lamenting of great loss or deep sadness. The raindrops were almost microscopically small and when I later stepped outside for the morning walk they soothed and covered my face in a fine mist and my eyelashes sparkled around the rim of seeing. All about me millions of grass and sedge flowers glowed with silver, and every leaf shone with a fine and delicate coating of argent and pearl. The very edges of the world had disappeared. We were sailing on a sea of silver tears, horizon-less and effulgent, and through the lucent whispers of ghosts; or so it seemed.
As the mists began to part I could see and almost hear the surrounding moorland, dessicated and bleached by recent heat and light, now joyfully welcoming the rains. And I was certain I could feel the unalloyed relief of bog plants as they held out their leaves and tendrils in sheer pleasure.
Built from the decay of plants such as Sphagnum moss, peat-bogs cover most of the countryside around South Erradale. Some mires lie in hollows interspersed with hundreds of tiny lochans and larger lochs, while blanket bog covers the lower hills that slope down to the sea, almost to cliff edges. Peat has in-filled the river valleys and stretches close to the mountain rims. In some places it is shallow, in others metres deep. Raised (ombrotrophic) bogs that grow dome-like in the lower valleys not only receive moisture from the heavens, rainfall also supplies nutrients. And so, all across this wild landscape, the whispering mists and rains were a much needed blessing and alongside the now-rising aroma of wetness came the sensation of a sudden return to life.
There is a path from South Erradale that weaves through large expanses of blanket and ombrotrophic bog and past hidden lochs to the village of Badachro a few miles away. As it leaves the ‘township’ it is strewn with boulders and clumps of heather so people and animals must pick their way carefully. The track rises gently up the flanks of Cnoc an Fhuarain following an ancient route to head inland away from the modern single track road that snakes along the coast. In years past, crofters would drive cattle across these low, lush hills towards the main drover routes out of Gairloch. Part of this old path was laid with stones so at one time it must have been substantive and a relatively easy walk out of the Erradale valley. Eventually though the ‘cobbles’ disappear, hidden now under peat and by spreading clumps of heather and myrtle. The carefully laid out rocks must have helped to dissipate surface water, directing it merrily down into the valley and encouraging its single minded determination to reach the Red River.
The land then flattens into an enormous basin filled with raised bog and lochans. Larger bodies of water dance with dragonflies: Loch Airigh Uilleim, Lochan Dubh, Lochan nam Breac Odhar and Loch Clair. At their edges the peat appears to be cut away as if scooped out by a giant’s spoon while here and there are small, bright red sandy beaches, littered with the broken branches and roots of ancient trees.
On a recent walk in full summer heat the first section of path was unusually dry though astonishingly still dotted with sundews. In many years of wandering and studying bogland I have never seen so many of these tiny, enigmatic plants, clustered in their hundreds, and especially not on dried-out footpaths.
Where the trail levelled out the landscape, alive with buzzing insects and carpeted with nodding flowers, danced in the heat haze. Beyond, the mountain silhouettes shimmered in blues and purples, their familiar faces edged with bright gold and silver as they watched, brooding. The loch waters dazzled and were hard to look at in their fierce brightness; breathing was difficult for the air was scent-filled and as thick as custard.
Passing between the lochs the trail wanders across thick, deep vegetation. Walking here on this bouncing bog was slow and energy sapping and with each step insects and seeds rose and swirled about in the currents of hot air. Now and again my feet sank deep into black, wet peaty holes. Eventually though, where the treacherous ground begins to rise and skirt Meall Bad a’ Chrotha, the path appeared once more. It passed between clusters of birch and hazel whose gentle, cool shade released scents of sap and greenwood, and then, as the track crossed the flatter grass-meadows of Torr a’ Chonmaidh, the beautiful Loch Bad a’ Chrotha and its fringe of oak trees came into view.
There is no doubt that these huge swathes of blanket peat and raised mire are beautiful though they can be treacherous in their allure. Wandering from a trail invites trouble: thick crimson or emerald cushions of Sphagnum can overly deep, black pools of water and bright verdant flushes of flowering plants may lead walkers still further from safety. Walk on the thick, spongy carpet and it will bounce in rhythm with your footsteps and release aromas of frankincense and myrrh. The colours of a summer bogland are extraordinary and magical: pale gold bog asphodel, blood-red and jade-green mosses, pure white cotton grasses, purple and pink orchids. Quickly, the mind takes in more of the tiny, delicate finery of the bog surface than of the grander sweep of landscape as it picks and chooses where next to place the booted foot. Again and again the mysterious nature of the bog is transformative; the living and material components meld and the overwhelming sensation is that of traversing an entity that is alive in its own right.
The landscape is splattered with names that refer to the magical and the faerie (sidhean means fairy) and boglands, fringed by gentle hills and woodlands and hidden from view, have deep and long associations with storytelling and superstition. It is no wonder, for they are wistfully enigmatic places, haunted by the calls of curlews, plovers and lapwing, and home to some of our rarest plants and beautifully perplexing insects.
But as bogs grow incrementally, year on year, they swallow the ‘here and now’ in a carpet of ruby and verdigris until it all but disappears. Gradually over the patient passage of time people become transformed into ghosts and fairies, and events turn into stories and then into myths and legends. Peatbogs, dressed in their finery, continue to live and breathe and grow; they divulge their deepest secrets only rarely, yet all the while they are blessed by gentle silver rains and the tears of people passing by.