I woke this morning after a dream about a Tru(i)mphant bloke with blond fly away hair. Actually there were hundreds of them, rather like the dream sequence in Disney’s Dumbo, where elephants dance and morph into strange shapes and then back to elephants. Only these trump-elephants were waving their trunks and yelling at everyone and everything, including a gaggle of judges and a raucous, baying cluster of people waving copies of the Daily Mail.
My answer, after a strong cup of tea and a comforting piece of toast, is to get outside as quickly as possible. Two of our current guests on the croft need a winter-warmer treat of dried grass and bran mash each day so their buckets and baskets need to be sorted. The early morning light cascades across the low hills surrounding the croft and for a while they seem to catch fire. Beyond, the mountains brood.
But then dog and I head across the fields and down the shore path.
Winter is blowing in from the north. I fancy I can smell the Arctic on the air. Hard showers overnight have dusted the high tops with snow and prickled us with hail at sea level. Autumn has been chased away. Yesterday’s bright copper pennies that still covered the birch trees are now whirling about us in a frenzy and the last leaves of the mountain ash trees in our small patch of woodland have completely vanished. Some of the more sheltered oaks here by the sea are clasping very tightly to their last curling leaves while the Scots pines are darkly dancing against a white sky.
As I walk along the narrow path the ground either side of me glows in rusty red and ochre. The hills beyond the croft are stained with burnt umber and brown madder as the bracken, heather and myrtle curl and shrivel in the cold. All the greens of summer grasses have faded; our fields have been grazed to fine carpets of felt though here and there rushes stand tall and defiant. Clumps of Juncus, unloved by many crofters, symptomatic of waterlogged fields, will provide shelter for the little meadow birds who stay here throughout the winter months; when the worst gales blow in, the tough, thick bases of the rushes are firm and secure so, although it is tempting to cut them back, we will leave them alone.
Down by the sea, the grasses and herbs have died back in dense blonde and rust coloured mats. But in odd places there are small, bright green mounds. They stand out in the pale turf that surrounds them, as bright and well defined as any Bronze Age burial mound in a sea of maturing Wessex wheat. At first glance they might be a grass covered boulder but on close inspection the unmistakable gift of otter spraint is obvious. Now the reason for the spring-like greenery is clear. Otter spraint is filled with crab carapace, claws, shells and fish bones and the finely ground, non-acidic calcium feeds the grass like fertiliser, encouraging different species to cover the heaps.
Some mounds are huge, the product of many generations of otter activity; they mark boundaries in the landscape made with as much skill and as well defined as any human-made fence, ditch or wall. I suspect some of the largest are older than most anthropogenic features here in the valley. For much of the year they are less visible but now as the living turf contracts under cold, ice showers sweeping in from the north, they stand out like emerald gemstones. Mostly they sit at junctions: where ditches or fences cross the trail, or where my path crosses their routes from the kelp covered rocks to the peat covered slopes. What is equally surprising is that there are so many of them; I count ten in less than half a mile.
I carry on and walk by the sea watching the waves unfurl and turning from aquamarine to pearl to steel-grey. Sea birds skim over their crests. Across the Minch showers are rushing by in great white and pearl-grey curtains.
Then the sea begins to churn more vigorously, its surface smearing like oil paints across an artist’s palette: Davy’s-grey accidentally mixed with Bismuth-yellow. But closer to shore the waves have become more like ship’s hawsers, long, lean and viridian, rolling over and over then thumping down as if dropped from a great height. They break apart in a foaming flurry of brilliant white and sluice up the slope of the shore dragging kelp and stones and ruddy-red sands back and forth.
Then I notice that the Outer Hebrides are disappearing, swallowed whole one by one from north to south: Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South UIst… Overhead the clear sky is quickly being overwhelmed by very high, fuzzy clouds, rather like those created in the fierce updraughts that accompany a developing thunderstorm. We play, dog and me, for a while with bits of old rope. He likes to gather them up and if they seem in reasonable condition we will carry them home; they will come in handy for something or other. Shredded, useless bits we pile up until there is enough to warrant a trip to the recycling centre beyond Gairloch.
Then we turn for home. The wall which looked at first like distant smoke has now become a dense and swirling mass, more like towers and columns than curtains. Snow and hail! These are wintry showers and they will bite. We step quickly back past the otterine battlements by the shore path and head up the cliff towards the croft. At the top I turn to face the sea for one last look; the Hebrides have all gone and much of Skye has vanished too. Hail strikes my face; it is noisy and gritty and for a few moments the day darkens. In a strong wind such as this we don’t really get wet because the gusts carry the hail swiftly past. The visiting Shetland ponies have sensibly found a sheltered spot by my neighbour’s hedge; their heads are tucked in, their tummies and flanks are touching, their thick manes and tails keeping out the hail and biting winds. To the east the curtain-towers are sweeping inland across the mountains; more snow for the high peaks.
As we make our way along the track dog gallops about with his rope haul, teasing me and wanting to play a game of tug. He ignores the hail. But, like the ponies, my head is down too. I am ready for a hot drink.
Then I think about our coastal otters tucked up in their holts, snoozing warmly, oblivious to the hail storm, dreaming of fish rather than dancing politicians. And with that thought my out-loud-laugh is carried off by a gust of wind.