Summer (school) holidays are in full swing and it’s been raining. Of course it has; just when you want some dry warmth so children can run about and enjoy the freedom of hill and beach on their Highland holidays torrential downpours coupled with occasional gales blow in to spoil the party. And there is a perennial problem that accompanies warmth and dampness: the Scottish midge is a mean spirited and devious biter that can sneak into every crevice, nip at ears and eyelids and create a manic dancer from even the most infirm and arthritic Highlander.
Our recent family visitors have roamed the hills, bravely ignoring the midges, they have sand sledged in high, bare dunes at ‘the Point’, played football in the croft fields and pottered about in our boat, watched calmly by seals and herons.
This year seems busier than usual with camper-vans, cars, caravans, motorbikes and cyclists enjoying the new North Coast (NC) 500 route that sweeps around the North-West Highlands as close to the sea as possible. Traffic on main roads is as fidgety as the midgy air, and at times as maddening. Who can blame them though? The draw of wild mountains and remote beaches is strong though many don’t stray far from the 500 or beyond the small villages strung along its length like beads on a necklace. Red River Croft is off the beaten track. “NC500-ers” would need to take a long detour to get here and so we are somewhat removed from the madness that certain sections of the route generate.
Away from the tourist ‘hotspots’ our little beach (Gaineamh an Openham or Opinan) is quiet; its peach and rose coloured sands are radiant and clean, patterned with the footprints of otters, deer and cattle, and decorated with seaweeds, shells and small, brightly coloured stones. Oystercatchers and curlews pipe and prattle among the rocks, ringed plovers peep and skirl as they run up and down the sloping sandy shore and swallows and sand martins swerve and skim overhead chasing insects.
It has been a good year for beach babies. Clutches of plover’s eggs were laid in small, sandy hollows and hatched successfully. The pale-grey fluffy hatchlings quickly learned to lie still, hunkering down, so they looked for all the world (and to the hunting gulls) like weathered stones, randomly placed, silent and still. Many times I stepped over them, and realising quickly that I had done so, had a heart pounding few moments as I thought of what damage could have been done. Oystercatcher young emerged from the gravels too, boisterous, loud and protected by furious, brave and shrieking parents whenever the gulls or bonxies swooped, or whenever dog and I wandered too close.
To reach the beach I must follow a grassy track that descends from the cliff near my home and weaves along the shore through a close-cropped sward of herbs, grasses and sedges. Here and there are clumps of tall violet thistles and sorrel the colour of blushing cheeks, patches of yellow flag-iris, pink ragged-robin and white cotton-grass. As these flowers fade, heathers are coming into bloom. Gradually the greens and yellows are yielding to smudges of purple and violet.
The space between high water and low tide is filled with boulders crusted with lichens and fading thrift, and smaller cobbles draped with bright green and brown seaweeds, some like livid-green hair, others curled and coiffed like models waiting to be photographed. And there are a few small, salmon-pink patches of sand. From atop the scarp slope it all looks like an unravelling woollen scarf of many colours. There are remnants of remoter times: a rusted winch that used to haul fishing skiffs from the shore, old fence posts pitted with lichens and studded with mosses, curled and rusting wires and other, stranger encrusted pieces of metalwork whose purposes I cannot guess.
On the map this short stretch of coast immediately below the cliff top is called Fiadhair Mhor and Fiadhair Beag. These names, that translate roughly as leas big and small, are memories of a long vanished edge-land that was made up of a once much sandier beach and more extensive meadowland (machair), all now swallowed by the sea.
At the far northern end of Gaineamh an Openham, beyond the ringed plovers and their sandy babies, a little burn emerges; it has carried peaty water from Loch Airigh Uillem across bogland, between croft houses and through fields and sand dunes to thread its way among the oystercatcher’s stones and merrily down to the waves. Further still from the flat, broken rocks of Sgeir a’ Phuill that frown at the burn’s mouth, low cliffs ripple and rise, undulating northwards, blanketed in peat and carpeted with sphagnum mosses, heather, myrtle, dwarf willow and an array of tiny white and yellow wildflowers.
These cliffs and the rocky shores seem steadfast but the sands, swept smooth and clear each day by wave and wind, are changeable and responsive, filled with motion, moods and energy, stirring and shifting in tune with the sea’s singing and voices on the winds. Opinan sands are derived from some of the oldest rocks on earth; we can only guess at how the archaic landscapes might have looked but we can imagine a hot, volcanic world where there must have been mountains and rivers, deserts, oceans and beaches, untrodden, empty and voiceless.
Now as each wave slips frothily across the sand it leaves an almost microscopic wall, two or three grains of sand tall, in a long, curving line. As these patterns are repeated whole landscapes appear, precise, delicate, beautiful and rather wistful, like old Chinese paintings of mountain vistas. Writing about them in an early blog I thought of these curling shapes as deliberately drawn, fashioned by the sea using tiny fragments of rock. It could be that both seas and sands contain memories of lost and ancient worlds, and, perhaps because those remote times on earth were not voiceless after all, these sand-wave paintings are representations, tales even, of the Archaeon itself.
But the smoothness of the beach and the delicate landscapes drawn by the gentle waves have been destroyed over the last two days. An unseasonable storm blew in quickly from the Atlantic. Some three months early, it swiftly sent summer packing and thumped and banged about the croft tearing at the vegetable patch, battering the roses and creating a thick carpet of dark green needles in the little pine woodland near the house. The storm was a brooding, hormonal and temperamental beast with throbbing winds that yowled and shoved, with pulsing sulphurous yellow light and frowning dark-grey and aquamarine clouds that swept across in bands from sea to shore.
On the beach, gravels and small stones were thrown about while sands blew from south to north in stinging, biting clouds. Gone now is the sleek, smooth and gently sloping shore, gone are the delicate wave paintings; this is now a landscape of buttress and canyon, arroyo and mesa, carved by air and water and by fierceness and power. And yet, fanciful as it might seem, these shapes might also be re-creations of archaic landscapes, devised by the same memories stored in ocean and sands, and geo-sculpted in fantastic land-forms to reinforce the storytelling that I’d imagined.
After the worst of the storm had passed, yet still in the teeth of a yowling wind, I walked across the beach kicking my feet through the cappuccino foam, clambering up and down the canyons, wiping the stinging sand from my eyes, and I was transformed into an explorer seeing a new world for the very first time. I love the wind; as my cheeks reddened laughter bubbled up as it always does in wild weather but also at my (mad?) imaginings of lost worlds where the sea is an artist and each grain of sand holds a record of the past within it.
Then I realised that the winds were laughing too; the waves were giggling while above me the sea birds cackled, and along the shore little plovers and red-eyed oystercatchers, having survived a night of tempest and fury, were chuckling as they dashed back and forth through the foam.