Buffeting breezes and grey rains have returned yet the signs of spring are manifold. There are snowdrops gasping in wide open surprise at the lack of snow and ice, crocuses vibrating in purple and orange and daffodil spears bursting through turf and soil. Birdsong has changed. Only a few days ago it was bubbling but subdued and still filled with winter melodies. Now the first stirring strains of romance and joy and excitement are trilling from trees and hedges. Not long, they call out, not long, spring is coming.
But on the western horizon sits the dark blue-grey silhouette of a monster, stretched out, maw facing south, curling tail draped north; it is a shadow-creature from aeons past whose back bones undulate as if contorted in torment, unable to fully unravel itself.
As long as mists or low cloud do not wrap the world up in gauze, it is possible to pick out high points along the horizon and mark dipping weaknesses in the beast’s body. I see it every day from the croft and coastal paths or down on the beach. It must be made of magic because its colour and transparency change; a shape-shifter then. This is the Trotternish, a long peninsula of northern Skye, created by magma and movement in the interplay between unimaginable crustal forces.
Standing in our high field I see the soul-shape of Trotternish. I can watch its changing colours every day and marvel at sunsets as they travel back and forth along the undulating horizon across the year, solstice to solstice. These skeletal forms have names: Old Man of Storr, Beinn Edra, Quiraing, Meall na Suiramach; they roll from my tongue as I trace them on a map and I feel like a student learning the names of vertebrae and other bones in a medical textbook. Beyond, other fantastic beasts emerge: the Uists, Harris, Lewis, the Shiants.
These island-beasts move. When the sun sets through a cloudless sky they seem almost close enough to touch: lavender and purple bruises against a sea of pink and gold. At other times they disappear, swallowed whole by skeins of cloud. And when showers race up through the Inner Sound to spill out across the Minch they pulse and flex as if alive and breathing.
I see them in some form or another every day. I look for their familiar shapes and shadows, highs and lows billowing from south to north, prickling with detail and sparkles of light or as faint, uncertain splodges of grey and silver. The silhouetted spinal column of Trotternish stretches out in front of me as I head across the fields and I have come to love its weather-dependent rolling gentleness as much as its Hadean cragginess. Occasionally I can see, following a spell of ice and snow, the harsh grey spikes of the Old Man of Storr below the basin of Coire Scamadal.
The last days of January were filled with sharp blue clarity and unusual, unseasonable warmth. We left the croft behind and crossed the Skye Bridge to stay in a small cottage tucked neatly below the monster and from here we set out to explore.
At each end of the Trotternish otherworldly, thrusting and convoluted forms are woven into the fabric of the rock. There are formations so outlandish they could have been moulded directly from fantasy or fairy tale; there are high hanging waterfalls, crenellated ridges and scooped out basins.
And sitting beside them are mountains piled high in aiguilles and fissures, inaccessible, demanding, murderous and remote, hidden valleys concealing shining lochans, layered cliffs and white coral beaches.
Some can be seen from the roadside but others must be earned. Steep paths lead up to pinnacles and clefts created in great cataclysms of rock and magma, pushed and pulled and pressed in titanic crustal forces then scoured by ice and washed by rains. Turn this way or that and the formations reveal themselves: a wizard’s hat, a gnarled face, a line of soldiers, a dragon’s head, a dining table for giants. Turn again and light cascades across the landscape, painting slopes in turquoise and violet, splashing peach juice into lochs and dabbing clouds with crimson.
Having stravaiged the magic of Trotternish, when I set out tomorrow morning to walk across our own croft fields I will cast my eyes to the beast’s contorted spine, drink in the colours and lights and smile, because I know the secrets that lie hidden there now, beyond the Inner Sound.
And they are fantastic.