November has slipped through my fingers somehow.
Snow arrived in the mountains early in the month but for some reason storms that usually track in from the Atlantic bringing severe gales and heavy rain have mostly been diverted north by a quivering jet stream, although one contrarian recently swept through southern England. It feels unusual. November normally brings gales that are relentless and clamorous. The lack of wind is welcome but there is a palpable absence. I am not complaining. The calmness of icy-bright, arctic-blue-sky days, filled with low yellow light and deep Prussian-blue shadows, is uplifting. I have been wearing sunglasses and squinting under the peak of my cap when I could be peering through permanent, horizontal battleship-grey rains.
It has rained of course: showers have blown in from the south, dragged back and forth across the Hebrides in curtains of lavender and pewter and over-topped by clouds glowing in ivory and ochre. They have alternated with rainbow-edged downpours of diamond hail that have swept down the Minch and funnelled through the Inner Sound creating great towers and castles of luminous white, filled with thunder. This Arctic ice, on strong yet fleeting gusts, has bitten hard at exposed skin and made my eyes water.
Under clear skies rime and verglas coated everything: delicate needles and darts along leaf edges and frosted-glass fleur-de-lis and feathers atop puddles and ditches. Even beside the sea high-tide kelp heaps were fringed with ice, beach sands twinkled like stars in the night sky as if each individual grain was coated in frost. Waves, usually brim-full of noisy warnings, frothed and spattered in low, pure-white coils. Because the air has been so still and the sea so calm the shore and croft fields have been filled with bird song, and amongst the singing and flittering of feathers, most curiously, dancing in the sunshine, clouds of tiny flies have braved the sharp, gelid air.
Deer have been coming onto the croft. Their distinctive hoof prints have appeared by the byre door and I wonder what is enticing them to venture closer. In the riverbank flood sands deer tracks merge with otter prints and bird tracks. Clearly this stretch of river, with its low and gentle sloping sides, is as popular with wildlife as it is for crofters. On old ‘township’ maps this place is marked as a ford and was most likely the best crossing place in the long years before the bridge over the Red River was built. I like the idea that wildlife still favours this spot either for a quick dash across the river or to drink in peace.
There are many other points along the river and shore where wild animal trails cross mine. I am amazed at the number of otter spraint mounds and, at this time of the year, when grasses have faded to pale dun and sedges to russet, they stand out, brightly green. A combination of shells, bones and tarry mucus adds nutrients and alkalis to the growing heaps and when they are used so regularly different grass species grow on them.
I found an academic paper recently that described otter movements here in Western Scotland. The authors concluded that otter activity was at its greatest in autumn and early winter and they provided a list of explanations about why this should be so. But I was concerned; they had based their conclusions on a bevy of field data about spraint mounds collected between late October and early December. Had they observed a real increase in activity or had they simply found the spraints so much easier to spot because of their bright ‘look-at-me’ greenness in a sea of titian, copper and ash-blonde?
It seems even quiet weather in winter can cause stress to wildlife. The body of a young porpoise was washed up on the beach recently. There were no signs of injury so its untimely death goes unexplained. On the same day, a small white corpse also appeared, tangled up in the seaweeds and assorted bits of rope: a baby seal with fur like velvet. Within a few days the waves had rubbed away the hairs revealing its alabaster skin and by the end of the week it had vanished, whipped away like a ghost whose misty incarnation was not strong enough to withstand the tugging and pulling of returning salt winds and growing waves.
Both bodies have gone completely now. There are no fragments, no bones. And yet again the weather has turned, flip-flopping unseasonably and unpredictably. Until a week ago snow lay in meringue spires and ridges across the Torridons. But then with an uncharacteristic flip of the jet stream, the ice world was shrugged off and almost all the snow has now vanished. Warm mists have replaced flecks of ice in the air and our Red River has filled up with melt-water. Strangely, its surface is black and glassy, slow moving and silent, rather like the eyes of a shark.
Yesterday morning was a fiercely cold Svalbard sort of day, when breath crystallises as soon as it leaves the body, when polar bears roam and sleigh bells jingle. Hoar frost coated bare branches in inch-long white needles so all the trees looked as though they belonged in a Christmas advert for a well-known store. The sea was milky turquoise with shining curves of chrome where currents churned below its sliding surface. At 9.30 am the temperature was -50C. Just six hours later all the light had been wrapped up in grey gauze and the thermometer read 150C, a twenty degree climb in half a day.
On the croft are two over-wintering guests wearing coats. Their great age demands some extra comforts in the cold. They are Shetland ponies: Cindy and Toby, aged 37, a human-equivalent age of about 180. Their lack of molar teeth that can grind tough moorland grasses effectively necessitates some gentler foodstuffs: a little bran-mash with sugar-beet now and then. We leave the byre doors open as shelter but these sensible creatures can read the weather far more readily than us, forecasts or no, and they find dry, frost-free places in the whin or calm spots out of the gusting winds along the deep ditch banks as they ramble slowly about picking at grass and heather. They can disappear from view but as soon as the gate creaks open they amble over in the hope of a sweet mushy treat, gently guided and corralled by our young dog Dram.
I have just been out to check on Cindy and Toby. Dog galloped about in the pewter dusk as I walked along the river bank. Overhead an ash coloured moon, gibbous and pitted with craters of soot, peered out from the running clouds. I stopped by the sandy ford and watched dog scrabble about for stones. All around us were footprints: a cluster of small Shetland-ovals, dog paws, and tracks of otter and deer. I traced the deer trails into the patchy meadow grasses and looked up. I jumped, thinking of ghosts. But there, reflecting the pallid light of the moon, were five sets of eyes.
Aha, now I understood the prints by the byre; the deer had come to see if a bucket of sweet mash was on offer.