Winter still stretches out ahead in a long slow arc. Occasionally it feels like travelling on a motorway through a wet, dark night, headlights on full. Beyond the limits of pale beams nothing can be seen even though we know the asphalt carries on and on. It is wearisome, that kind of travelling. And at times deep winter is tiring; the lack of brightness makes eyelids droop. But, creep by slow creep, days are lengthening.
From an upstairs north-facing window, on one day of fierce winds, I paused. Aha! Light: swimming across Lonemore in a tiger-stripe band of yellow against the wind-burned brown moor. Clouds were rushing in, bumping into one another and piling up, skyscraper-high. Sunlight broke through and poured lemon juice over Meall Imireach’s last remaining icing-white snows. Flash by stepping flash brightness flickered here and simmered there, and in a few minutes of watching, was chased away, again and again, by peach and lavender bands of cloud. There seemed to be the promise of warmth in one, ice in the other. But light is returning.
In the low light of midwinter it can be hard to see colour in the landscape. Before the stormy days last week the sea surface rippled gently like a Victorian ball gown. Among my tubes of paint I found one called ‘Davy’s Gray’, a greenish-grey with a mysterious name, perfect for a bolt of satin. The internet told me it is made from powdered slate, created for an artist who lived three centuries ago. There were other greys: ‘Cadet grey’ for the uniforms of the Confederate Army; the ‘Cinereous Grey’ of rock ash; ‘Battleship Grey’ to rustproof ships of war. I found (and loved) ‘Marengo Grey’, named for Napoleon’s famous war horse and the colour of wet asphalt, and I thought again about the long road of deep winter still to come.
But this morning there was light on the hills in little glisters so blinding they made me blink and squint, and more blue in the curls of grey. I baked a cake the colour of rich bitter chocolate like deep bog peat and I remembered how, hand in hand with my mother, I would go out in the dark to see the moon. Years later, I did the same with my first born, singing a nursery rhyme about a man named Aiken Drum who lived on it, and then again and again with all four little ones.
There is no orange murk from street lights here, only small lights twinkling now and again from scattered croft houses. Walk away from the yellow warmth at my open door and to the croft fields and I am confronted at first by a solid wall of blackness. But a midwinter night has light threaded through it; it is never wholly pitch-dark. Even when stars are invisible behind a blanket of cloud water glows in spectral green. The sea is smeared with gentle bioflourescence as if phytoplankton, angler fish with their strange lamps, eels and glowing jellyfish have swum up from the deeps not knowing where the ocean ended and the sky began. And the Abhain Dearg becomes a mother-of-pearl ribbon-river decorating the deep dark velvet of winter whose nap is lustrous and heavy.
Now light comes earlier each morning and is washed away a few minutes later at day’s end. I can walk about torch-less at 4.30pm. Even on dreich days filled with smudges of rain and banks of sea mist, when sunlight cannot penetrate the thick, dense rolling pillows of greyness there is an earthly glow around us. The gleam of light is most profound and intense at the coast and comes from every bit of sand, rock, sea-weed, lichen, tree bark, waving grass and water. This earth-based light is rich and eye-watering and more than makes up for lack of yellow sunlight.
Animals and birds reflect it too. Rock pipits hopping on the rocky shore or ringed plovers paddling and running up and down the sands are brighter somehow with flickers and flashes of feathers that seem more like war-paint. The old Shetland ponies look bright-eyed, their shaggy manes and tails appear groomed even when they are snagged with gorse or grass; white sheep seem newly bathed and doused in talcum powder, black sheep are buffed and shining with boot polish. Even the hooded crows, swooping slowly as they hunt appear dressed in fine dun Harris tweed waistcoats and capes of black twill. And dog, roaming the sands, glows like polished jet.
In the high mountains snow has come and gone several times in recent weeks. The peaks are grim and grey for now; their lower slopes glower in burnt umber and pale ochre where wind-burned heather and stunted clumps of tough grass wait for spring. Mountain hares, brightly white, must be struggling to hide from raptors on the snowless slopes and deer roam down among the crofts foraging and stripping bark from trees wherever they can. The Red River has over-topped its banks three times in as many weeks in rushing, sediment-filled foaming outbursts but there are fish in there: every so often in the darkening at day’s end a flicker of silver in the cola-coloured water betrays them.
And then there are the fish bones left by otter at the gatepost. My new neighbour has no problems poaching river trout or with the dark.