Yesterday, early, before the real time of rising, brightness crept in around my bedroom curtains. Not the silver-grey of moonlight or hints of auroral green but a sharper, clearer shaft of pearl and turquoise. This was the first time my retinas and brain had reacted and I came sharply awake. Sunrise, when the sun skims above the southern flanks of Torridon’s Tom na Gruigaich, was more than two hours away but I felt it, this returning light.
The Celtic festival known as Imbolc, February 1st, is the mid-point of winter, when light begins to grow perceptibly, or so we are told. And over the last few days there has been a sense of excitement emerging from the hedges and fields, as senses, far more attuned to nature’s signals than I, have begun to respond. There has been a greater variety of birdsong and increasing numbers of small birds scooting across the fields.
So the day fell open like a heavy book whose pages part at a much loved chapter, a day of promise and yellow brightness, when eye-watering beams of cold clarity spread out from behind the mountains to scoop up any remaining iciness and purple shadows and prompt us into wakefulness. If this is what the ancients meant by Imbolc I could see it unfolding before me as mustard-yellow sunlight crept over the fields towards the house and then, sweeping over me and west to the sea, began to paint the sparse violet clouds with coral and cream.
Later, down on the shore, a light wind blew. It takes another full hour after rising over the mountains for the sun to spread champagne light across the beach, but when it comes the sands sparkle, shell fragments flash and sea weeds glisten. Then the world appears to transform from a two dimensional pale-grey photograph into a 3-D pop up theatre of colour and texture.
I was not alone. Clusters of birds stood still, unmoving as the sunlight spread out before them and they seemed to be enjoying the gentle touch of warmth. There were oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sandpipers, gulls of many kinds, turnstones, three herons and two curlews. They stood motionless for some time as the high waters sluiced back and forth and as I watched. Several birds then hopped up from the sand onto the machair and began to pick at the grasses, hunting for insects and worms.
Pagan Imbolc is also the festival of Brìghde, goddess of fire and fertility, who was transformed into St Brigid/Bride as the Celtic world was Christianised. In Gaelic the oystercatcher is called the Gille Brìghde or Guide of St Brigid. Legends tell us that she would send out the feisty birds to guide ships to safety and I can understand her choice. Any sailor would recognise their piercing and distinctive calls and know a safe shore was near.
On the beach, ruffled by a rising breeze and at last aware of dog and me, the oystercatchers called out, their voices echoing and strident. And as I moved closer they shouted to all and sundry, and, perhaps remembering their part in Brìghde’s story, began to separate and go about their business.
The whole day was flushed with light. Across the Inner Sound much of Skye remained under deep blue cloud with the odd silvery shower seeping through the gaps in the spine of Trotternish.
But here was dry and oddly calm. We are waiting for the winds to return and yet in the afternoon, as I walked out again with dog, the airs were still enough for tiny flies to emerge over myriad pools of water on the bog. I wondered if they were early non-biting midges, Chironomids. One of my colleagues used their remains, found in peat bog cores and lake sediments, as indicators of temperatures in the remote past and I watched, fascinated by their flickering, as they danced over the black waters among the mounds of Sphagnum moss.
Heading back to the house through the top field I noticed hundreds of worm casts across the grassy turf, more than I have ever seen there before. Low beams of sunlight picked out the tiny curls of soil. So worms, too, have felt the change through the earth and headed up to find the light. It is a good sign for the field; the ground is waking up.
When darkness finally came, there were other Imbolc lights in the sky: a new crescent moon flanked by Venus and Mars, both shining like newly polished gemstones and flashing with alien energy. I needed to bring in some wood for the fire but went to the gate to look out over the peatland. I stopped, leaning on the uppermost cold metal bar with folded arms, and gazed out in the darkness seeing only vague shadowy shapes, and I listened to the distant sound of waves breaking on the shore. Then, with an intake of breath, I realised the landscape was not dark at all, there were hundreds of miniscule glowing Venusian and Martian planet-lamps, all reflecting back from the mirrored surfaces of the bog pools, as if each small body of water had lit a candle.
And then I remembered. Of course, it was Candlemas Eve.