Midwinter, Christmas and a new neighbour

I am restored. Normal winter weather has returned. From outside howlings and groanings interfere with any thoughts of planning for the day. The noise is relentless. I can’t see properly through any of my windows though I peer out of each one to check on things. (Check on what exactly? Why, things, of course.) Salt encrusts glass, and even views from upstairs windows are blurred and grey. Wait, I can see now; the last blast of hail has washed a small clear patch through which I can peek. Outside, visible gusts careen past carrying salt, grit, ice and full-throated roars. Even if I could stand up in the 70mph blasts, and I can’t, any bare skin would be flayed and my coat shredded. Such is the contrast to December weather that for a while this morning I forgot what it was like then, and I returned to my notebooks to help recall the unusual calmness and warmth that rolled up from southern seas. It was a strange time, this early winter, made more peculiar by the confused singing of birds and flowering of buttercups, and the temporary loss of internet connectivity.

As the midwinter solstice drew closer a large smiling face, booming with pale butter-yellow light, tipped first one way then the other, grinning to the left as it rose in late afternoon and to the right as it dipped into dawn. A December super-moon sailed through the night sky grinning from evening rise to morning set.  And for more than a week its light drenched everything in soundless silver, blanching the sky, hiding the Milky Way and outshining the Aurora Borealis. Nothing else could be seen in the night sky.

Amidst the raucous birdsong a few remaining crisp and crepitating brown leaves on trees and in hedges rustled and rasped. This was an unusual period of calm and relative warmth; daisies popped up with buttercups like brightly-coloured surprises from Christmas crackers and tiny flies emerged to flash and flicker over the ditches. Now and then hedgerow birdsong felt vernal and overly cheerful. Tides, bewitched by and slavishly following the moon, were remarkably high then extremely low, and swooshed lovingly back and forth in gentle waves of old lace across the beach. The shoreline path, stretching as it does alongside boulders and rocks, fizzed with small birds: rock pipits piping and mobs of tiny wrens pseeping.

Just a few days before Christmas these tempting and puzzling snippets of spring quickly vanished. Temperatures fell, wind speeds increased and showers, heavy and cumbersome in their bold greyness, rolled in from the sea. Storms, seeded by Atlantic Ocean warming and Jet Stream wavering, snarky and brim-full of violence, began to queue up, ready for Christmas landfall, and I worried for our youngsters on their long journeys home and whether there would be power for cooking a festive dinner.


But the decorative lights went up; candles were lit and mid-day solstice sunlight poured across fields and hills in brief, fiery-golden and blinding fluorescences. Greenery was draped across the mantels and window sills, presents placed under the scented tree and Yule logs burned merrily in the fire. And we needed the bright comfort of baubles, twinkling fairy lights and swirling perfumes of cloves and cinnamon, for no matter how hard it tried the midwinter sun could only skim the hilltops south of the Red River and its bursts of brilliance were short-lived.


Natural light is scant and fickle in winter, appearing in a field patch here or on a hillside there and disappearing as fast a surprising wink. Regardless of any official sunrise time, it takes another hour and twenty minutes for the sun to clear the broad dun hill that is the backbone of Meol Ruadh and sprinkle the river waters with gold-dust.  When it does emerge it is hard to look away; I like to stand still and enjoy being poached in a moment of warmth and gilded by a cupful of radiance. One morning, as I stood waiting for the sunburst I saw a cluster of deer across the river. They, too, were standing stock-still. Within two heartbeats we were all dazzled by warm light. There was a cacophony of noise in the hedges; birdsong, sudden and clamorous, woke us from our enchantment and the deer leapt away.


The family tumbled in for Christmas battered by great columns of soot-black clouds, mud-grey showers, and deafened by stentorian gusts of wind that whipped and sliced up air and space around the croft house and sluiced, keening and wailing, through the telegraph wires.


For most of their stay the smallest family members were confined to the croft gardens, protected by high hedges and serenaded by birdsong, as seemingly untroubled by the gales as the birds and just as boisterous. We managed our shore trail only once for it was not safe for small legs. We kicked at foam and froth, threw stones at the waves, examined rock pools and ran through sand dunes.

Of course, as soon as the youngsters departed a pale lavender and creamy calm replaced the wild, capricious winds. Shore birds returned in larger numbers and rushed to feed among the piles of seaweeds and shells or dash up and down following the waves to pick at worms and sand hoppers. There were oyster-catchers, gulls, ringed plovers and whimbrels. Hooded crows descended to forage among the rocks and just once I spotted a sea eagle swooping down over the waves. In the sands otter footprints betrayed their criss-cross routes from holt to sea, and across the machair hundreds of shells (mussel, whelk, limpet, cockle), dropped by birds, were spread out in a crunchy carpet.



Our croft fields are sodden; the Red River has risen and fallen swiftly many times in the last few weeks. After one nasty night of squalls a large sheet of metal appeared in the river, too heavy and cumbersome for us to drag out. I was worried for the otters using the river banks and boulders to avoid the worst gusts but by the following morning it had gone, picked up again by more storminess and blown completely away.

Now the relatively warm squalls from the south and west have been replaced by cold storm winds streaking out of the north. They carry ice and frenzy; they bring maelstroms and cauldrons of fury; they call out in paroxysms of rage. The sky is iceberg-blue then ink black, while the sea booms out in variegated and iridescent waves of pitch and aquamarine. When sunlight bursts through cloud and tears at salt-encrusted mistiness, crests and spray of coruscating white are transformed into millions of individual rainbows for a few short seconds. Blinking my eyes in the stinging salt and cold I imagine the sea to have been decorated by trillions of Christmas fairy lights.



And so I am restored. Clogged up by Christmas indulgence and too long indoors I have revelled in these northerly storm winds and I feel as though I have been scoured clean by the biting gales, ice and salted grit. I’m ready for anything. When I stand, if I can, at the top of the cliff, I feel as though the winds are passing right through me, cleansing every cell in my body as they go and ripping away any concerns or thoughts of a troubled world.


Now our indoor decorations are taken down, my family have flown away though I’m not done with visitors it seems. As I walked across the lower croft fields with my dog an otter passed us by. He was large and running fast in the silky, sinuous flowing way that otters do. (I don’t know of any other animal that moves with such voluptuous sensuousness, save perhaps a horse on a joyous spring gallop.) I headed back upslope as quickly as I could; he disappeared into the gorse-covered high bank at the top of the field. From my vantage point I could see that he had not emerged from the other side. And then, walking back down towards the river we crossed his trail and there, in bright pink, toothpaste-white and tarry-black, was his spraint.

Several times now I’ve watched his run from river to gorse-bank. And now I’m certain; he has a holt in the spiny shrubs below the croft house so close to my writing shed that I can almost touch it. And I am thrilled.

A new neighbour for the New Year. I wonder… did he choose me?


About Annie O'Garra Worsley

Hello there. I'm a mother, grandmother, writer, crofter & Professor of Physical Geography specialising in ‘environmental change'. I live on a smallholding known as a 'croft'. The croft is close to the sea and surrounded by the ‘Great Wilderness’ mountains of the NW Highlands. I was a fulltime mother, then a full-time academic living and working in north-west England. In 2013 we decided to try and live a smaller, simpler, wilder life in the remote mountain and coastal landscapes of Wester Ross. When I was a young researcher, I spent time in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea living with indigenous communities there. They taught me about the interconnectedness and sacredness of the living world. After having my four children I worked in universities continuing my research and teaching students about environments, landform processes and landscape change. Eventually, after 12 years, I moved away from the rigours of scientific writing, rediscovered my wilder self and turned to nature non-fiction writing. My work has been published by Elliott & Thompson in a series of anthologies called 'Seasons' and I have essays in several editions of the highly acclaimed journal ‘Elementum’, each one partnered with artworks by contemporary artists. I also still work with former colleagues and publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. I am currently writing a book about this extraordinary place which will be published by Harper Collins.
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8 Responses to Midwinter, Christmas and a new neighbour

  1. alisondunlop says:

    Oh Annie, what a tonic to read this, as always, but especially today – thank you!! Such lyrical, evocative, spell-binding writing and your photos are stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. traceymfs says:

    Oh what a wonderful way to start the New Year. Blessings to you. Your writing as always makes me want to be there. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sandra says:

    Your descriptions are so beautiful, Annie. Evocative and uplifting. I savour these magical interludes you give us. Thank you 🙂


  4. Jan Bloemendal says:

    Wonderful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MrsB_inthehills says:

    I so look forward to your posts. No matter what else is going on in the world, you cheer my soul

    Liked by 1 person

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