At the approach of autumn’s equinox the midday sun is still quite high but the light cascading across the hills is changed. Sea breezes filled with salt meet crisper air from mountain tops and everything around us, mixing and swirling, becomes suffused with yellowness. I was once given a cup of oolong tea in a clear glass cup. It was a rich yellow–ochre colour and tasted sweet although there was no sugar in it. And it smelled richly of honey, and hazelnuts fresh from their shells. Now the whole landscape seems to be steeped in oolong tea. It is more than that, leaves of every kind, bare soil and peat, bark and branches are being warmed and dried by the September sun and stiff sea breezes. Oolong is traditionally prepared by allowing Camellia sinensis leaves to slowly wither and curl in sunlight and air concentrating their distinctive aromas and colours in the process of shrinkage. In this spell of bright, warm equinoctial weather the leaves here are shrivelling, but the scents and golden hues that accompany them are vibrating everywhere; stand on the highest mountain top or down by the sea and breathing in deeply is like supping golden, honeyed tea. And both mind and body are refreshed.
While the sharp, fluorescence of summer sunsets has mellowed, the pastel shades of onrushing and deepening evenings over the last week have pulsed in candyfloss colours. Some clouds were wholly pink and marshmallow thick, others flashed with orange and turquoise, translucent like old fashioned boiled sweets.
Occasionally as rains showers swept across the sea the setting sun bathed distant islands in liquid gold and fiery heat. Walking by the shore in the cool blue-purple of evening, beyond us, as if encased in the magic of fairytales and legends, islands undulated in aureate ruffles.
On one evening the splendid fortresses that are the Torridon mountains were humbled by columns of rose and towers of ruby pierced by harlequin ribbons of rainbows and veils of showers.
The equinox follows the harvest full moon and usually brings colder nights and damper mornings. The sun rises just behind the Baosbheinn and sets in between ripples of the North Uist hills and southern edge of Harris. From the croft the extremes of the solar year are clearly defined by mountain peaks and Hebridean islands and in just three months the Old Man of Storr on Skye’s Trotternish will mark where the winter solstice sun sets. Then we will look forward once again to the midsummer sunset at Point of Ness on Lewis. Each year I am surprised at how quickly these celestial bookmarks move.
But for all the magic in the heavens there is just as much mystery below, on the croft as well as in the wilder lands around us. Life is on the move. Streamers and pennants are billowing as birds fly southwards, some low along the shore and across the meadows, others high and remote. Some stop awhile, others sweep past us.
I imagine our fields and meadows, seen from high above, as duvets quilted in greens, purples and gold and studded with crystals. They must look so enticing to geese as they swoop across browning moorlands for down they come, honking loudly, to land in our wet fields. (How do the rainbows and pink clouds seem to them as they fly so high?) While my eyes are drawn up theirs are drawn down. My deep senses drive me to the sea or mountain tops but they cannot compare to the driving forces and unseen sensations compelling migrating birds to undertake their great journeys.
There have been many more passage migrant birds along our shores this September than in recent years. They have continued to land and feed on kelp piles, among the rocks or along sandy strandlines no matter how hard the wind has blown. Bar-tailed godwits, long legged and with slightly up-curved beaks and beautifully camouflaged, carried on feeding despite the roaring sands driven by gales. Clusters of plovers, sandpipers, sanderlings and turnstones have sheltered beside large boulders in happy comradeship. If dog disturbed them they took off together in flashing aerobatic displays, out across the sea in a sweeping arc and landing a few metres further along the shore, still in their mixed group.
There have been some late-flying swallows recently and one morning I was greeted by the sharp clack of stone chats; for a few moments it felt and sounded like early summer. Most smaller and ocean travellers have passed through by the autumnal equinox and over the last few days numbers feeding on the seaweeds and strandline line debris have indeed dwindled. But the large skeins of geese will continue to arrive, rest, gossip and cackle for some weeks yet.
In the oolong-golden light of mid-day the voices of robins burble and dribble in sweet melancholy through the hedges and across the croft garden. They have been singing more strongly in recent days heralding the equinox, knowing the darkness is coming. But with all the strength their tiny hearts can muster and accompanied by the harvest moon, rainbows and flooding of colours in the skies, they have raised their voices in defiance.
Today the Autumn sun, glinting under my peaked cap and sneaking behind sunglasses, is making my eyes water. Out at sea the deep blues of the Minch and Inner Sound are tinged with gold while the high Torridon peaks are coy under hats of thick fluffy clouds. There may be a shower or two later in the hidden valleys and corries of Beinn Eighe and Liathach.
Soon enough we will taste snow on a northerly wind but for today, when light is in perfect balance with dark, we make the most of sweet golden tea and rainbows.