I came to the far north to live amongst its heady mix of mountain wilderness and wild seas, and for a different kind of life, to be closer to the elementals and more intimate with nature. But when a recent summer storm caused the river that runs through my croft to flood and rage with black water and bright foam, I found myself thinking of the town where I was born. As I watched dark flood waters sweeping through the fields deep memories of a riverbank childhood were caught up in them and, somewhat unexpectedly, I became a river-maid once more.
I was born on the banks of the River Mersey whose currents in those days ran chocolate brown and occasionally luminescent green and carried orange floating scum and other nameless rankness past my home down to the sea at Liverpool. Small streams and ditches leaked foul smelling sludge into the margins of the great river and occasionally foamed with bright yellow or turquoise bubbles from God-knows-what chemical formulae. Riverbank chimneys also poured with foulness and bitter-tasting sulphurous-yellow smokes that slurped along streets, in through sash windows and crept, unwelcomed, into lungs and blood. As a child I had dark thoughts about these nameless creepers, and the adults around me had darker words about dying and death.
Such darkness chased us out of town every year. We headed for mid-Wales and the big, wide Irish Sea, clean salt-air and sands, grassy cliff tops and high purple-blue mountains, peat bogs and woodlands of crimped, ancient oaks. We stayed as close to the sea as possible. There was a river here too, the clean, sparkling Leri. It switched back and forth between gently rounded, wooded hills, swiftly past the margins of one of Britain’s largest and most famous lowland raised mires, Cors Fochno, and then onwards, parallel to the sea and constrained within Victorian levees, to join the Dyfi estuary. A narrow path followed the course of the Leri for many miles. It was a dark, secretive trail and for the most part hidden by tall reeds and rushes that creaked and click-clacked even in the gentlest breeze as if each pale stem was exchanging news with the others.
I loved the river walks but it was the sea and coast which captured me mostly as a child: the bright, dazzling cleanness and noisiness of it all; white topped waves, bleached wooden breakwaters; the many-coloured rounded and smoothed cobblestones on the high back-beach and smells of grass and tiny flowers that grew there; pale orange sands, shells, seaweeds, crabs, starfish and wobbling jellyfish. Swimming in the rain, especially on a windy day when the waves seemed ten feet tall, made my whole body feel cleansed, as if the churning white and turquoise foam was deliberately clearing out the murk of town life by polishing every single cell inside and out. My childhood holiday-coast was a vibrant expansive place of horizons where big seas met enormous skies and lapped miles of mountains. I could track the weather as it changed, watch sunsets and sunrises, and most of all experience wild nature: dolphins swam in the bay then, fish jumped, dragonflies danced among the wild flowers and rock-pooling meant encounters with strange beasts. It was all so different from the River Mersey where swimming was forbidden, where sucking muds exposed at low tide stank and riverbank plants were grey and wraith-like.
Once I left my old town I never lived there again and for years the sea continued to draw me to it and the Lancashire coast was home. But I still yearned for a different life; the idea always hovered, hissing like tinnitus or crackling intermittently like a Bonfire Night sparkler. Eventually, like a salmon making a leap upstream, we jumped at the chance for a new life on Red River Croft, close enough to the ocean to hear the waves, near enough to the high mountains of Wester Ross to almost touch them. Enamoured of the wild seas and mountain wildernesses I tended to think of our little river as a just that, a small thing, until those dark swirling flood-waters stirred up deep fluvial memories.
A short watercourse by the standards of most Highland rivers, the Erradale sweeps east to west, curling around rocks and boulders, crimping the margins of meadows. It cuts through our croft fields and slithers, in beautiful sine curves, past house and byre. On old maps it is known as Abhain Dearg, the Red River, a name that captures its essence and reflects its blood-like nature.
Raindrops falling on hilltops and moorland begin a slow osmotic journey through peat and into black bog-pools, whispering to sundews, asphodels and curlews; overflowing, tiny rivulets trickle between crisp clumps of heather, golden tufted-grass, grey-haired dwarf willow and sweet-scented bog myrtle, merging and separating many times until they agree to mingle. Then the fragrant, dark water begins to whisper, chortling now and then as it passes over stones. Soon larger streamlets gather pace as they carve through peat and sluice between rocks becoming burns that glint in the sun and flash signals to other streams as they mark their routes downhill.
As the burns coalesce Abhain Dearg comes into being, a river now with a strong voice. For millennia it has shaped and gentled the hills, crafting them into voluptuous rounded, interlocking figures. Abhain Dearg has patiently fractured solid rock, scoured valleys, heaved or shunted boulders and carried gravels and sands and over years uncounted has sung songs of tumbling rage and bawling fury or carols of gentleness and soft rippling, and urged them onwards, westwards down to the sea.
In mid-winter when icy quiet and snowy blankets have wrapped around the Highlands, the Milky Way, star-laden, flows overhead, mirroring the shape and flow of Abhain Dearg; for a time it seems as if this little river were as important to the heavens as the mighty Nile. There are no ancient temples here, and if they ever existed are hidden to us, and perhaps remain only as ghostly presences in odd piles of stones, moss-covered and silent. On such clear nights the red river appears to be filled with stars and galaxies of its own, and lights the way up to the hills or down to the sea. Now and again, it glows with neon green, red and purple as it captures the shimmering, silent lights of the Aurora Borealis.
In high summer the river banks are bound tightly with wildflowers, grasses and sedges, with hazel, birch, willow and myrtle, and with tufts of pungent bracken and clumps of gorse. Many-coloured, the trail by the river is speckled as if it has been carelessly splashed with paints: white chamomile, mayweed and yarrow, cream parsley, angelica, hogweed and meadowsweet, blue scabious, purple vetch and self-heal, red clover, pink sorrel, violet knapweed and thistle, yellow-eyed eyebright, yellow-rattle, meadow buttercup and orange-yellow trefoils. The scents of juice and sap are citrus-strong amongst the grasses, sedges, rushes and bracken but when a warm breeze blows the whole valley fills with frankincense in the balm of a bog-myrtle blessing.
This little river pulses with a tangible heartbeat; it resonates with weather systems as they sweep in from the ocean, rising and falling with the varying volumes of water captured in the hills that enclose its headwaters. It is a visceral creature, alive, enigmatic, with a distinctive character, voice and temperament. I hear its voice every day; I listen to the changing songs, trying to understand its languages, and there are many. Abhain Dearg sings to the mountains and peat-bogs thanking them for their words of magic and faerie, and to the sea, passing on stories and poetry of landscape and receiving in return oceanic tales of mystery and creatures of the deeps. The river calls out to the skies, welcoming the rains and caressed by winds; it accepts the blessings of starlight, moonbeam and rainbow and radiates the kaleidoscope of colours at sunset and sunrise.
Summer storms can be faster, stronger and more volatile than a winter deluge and one most recent tempest was no exception. When Abhain Dearg floods its red waters boil dark brown and churn with cream and white froth-topped waves like coke erupting from a shaken bottle, and its irate voice deepens, becoming more brazen and clamorous. As the rust-red waters turn black with temper, gravels, sands, rocks and other debris are carried by unseen: fence posts, tree branches, clumps of soil and plants. Such is the power of the roiling water that boulders are shifted, riverbanks re-shaped or re-carved and the whole valley shudders; gone are the echoes of beach waves and ocean rollers, deadened are the sounds of buffeting winds yowling in the wires, the river is king and his voice roars above everything else.
But after, when pulses steady, the black-waters redden once more, their surfaces become smooth and reflective and the steady boom of waves breaking on the distant shore returns. Birds emerge to sing and pick at the debris, broken grasses and insects. Steam rises. Meadows breathe.
After this recent storm, I wandered along the newly cut banks to measure in my mind’s eye what had been lost or gained, and what had been gifted by the flood. There were new pink sandy sediments deposited all across the lower meadows, trees and bushes decorated with detritus like lametta on a Christmas tree, and boulders moved downstream or overturned, lying in new-found positions.
Lover of wild seas and high mountains I may be, but as I’d watched the storm waters and discovered what had been moved or changed, I realised I was still a river child. I am a part of Abhain Dearg now. I drink the water from its upland pools; I filter its finest sediment and its peaty chemistry through my body; I listen to the different songs and stories it sings every day; I see it grow and swell, and watch it pulse with light and colour.
I am a river. Red blood flows through me too.