Swallow-filled scents and a hidden beach

Warm light has spread across us like butter melting on toast. A week ago winter splashed about and shrugged snow over the hills and now just a few white patches remain on the high peaks. As the ground warms here by the sea, green needles of grass are pushing up through dun-brown tussocks. Although the surrounding moorland is still a patchwork quilt of burnt sienna and pale grey, the lowland bog is blooming with orange-tipped myrtle and bright crimson and emerald cushions of moss.

Cold north winds were replaced at first by a few days of calm. It is unusual for this place to be windless; the atmosphere is so salt filled and ruffled by tides that we rarely have a completely still day or night. But for a short while the air was silver droplet-filled and everything was coated in diamond-white microscopic beads of moisture. Land, sea and sky were shapeless, horizons vanished. I felt as though we were living not on the land’s hard rock edges but high among clouds held aloft by feathers. Now the pallid silver world has gone, shooed away by brisking spring breezes that have pulled scudding clouds and blue skies from the south.

Yesterday we walked to a hidden beach. A mile or so along our single track road it is possible to cut diagonally across pathless cliff-top moorland and head to the sea. From the road there is no hint that secret beaches hug the feet of these roaming cliffs; eyes are usually drawn beyond precipitous edges to the shadowy ridges of Skye and distant billows of Hebridean islands. But hidden treasures, made of bright pale sands, bouldered storm beaches and turquoise waters, are as much a part of this rugged coast as the sliding rock avalanches and steeply plunging cliffs.

We scrambled carefully down the steepest slopes nosing through thigh-high heather and stretching across small waterfalls that splashed cheerily over huge steps of sandstone. Below us the pale creamy beach sands glowed in the sunshine. Safely at sea level we could see the shore rocks were shape-shifters, colour-changers and life-givers. Though they looked small and grey from the cliff tops many were huge and rugged, taller than me and metres wide; others were smoothed into roundedness though still so big that to get to the strands we had to step nimbly from one giant oval to another. At each end of the bay solid rock ramparts were gnarled, lichen covered and stippled with rosettes of thrift. Below these outcrops were wave-cut platforms, also solid but worn into ripples and curves by thousands of years of grinding and polishing by waters filled with pebbles, grits and shells.

The rocks all along this coast are mostly Torridonian sandstones but like every other Wester Ross beach this place has boulders and shingles of other rock types, including gneiss and quartzite, ‘erratics’ from the mountains left by retreating ice sheets and glaciers millennia ago.

Together, the back beach, comprised of solid cliff and wave-cut benches with giant’s cannonballs, looked mysterious and colourful. The frontal sands were pale and fine and full of shell fragments. At low tide limpets, barnacles, mussels and winkles on the surface of inter-tidal rocks glimmered in the afternoon sun; some were clasped tightly together in rock crevices, shielded from the drying wind and light and from predators. And rock pools bustled with multi-coloured life as bright as any tropical reef.

In the ultra-low tidal conditions seaweeds were waving their frilled flags above the sea’s surface waters. As sunlight breached roaming clouds it struck these titian banners so they glinted, and kelp fields were transformed again and again into sparkling constellations.

We sat for some time, casting our eyes about for otters and sea birds and watching sunlight playing on the water. As I looked at my clothes I saw they were splattered with rust-red mud and stippled with salt and sand; I combed my hair with my fingers and pulled out tufts of grass, wondering if they had got there during my untidy scramble down the cliff.

I have always liked this feeling of stepping into the wilds and inside un-manicured, un-managed spaces, becoming more connected to the living world with each step. Most days I long for it and deliberately seek this strange sensation of ‘otherness’, though even here I don’t always find it.

Today the winds have turned and waft heartily from the east. They are warm and merry and catch at grasses, tufted heathers and myrtles on the bog next to our croft. Although I can feel the wind tugging at me as it blows from right to left and although I know individual clumps are bending harmoniously with each gust, the overall effect is of ripples moving biliously in the opposite direction, left to right. While it confuses me, the motion releases insects into the air as they are brushed from sheltering leaves, and birds flash back and forth chasing food.

Ambling along the path that leads to our (less wild and not so secret) shore I see whoops of swallows matching the waves of wind: they are feeding furiously and chattering loudly. I stand to watch and can feel bubbles of joy welling up inside me. Then I spot another migrant: a sand martin, then two more. I try to capture them on my camera but do not have the technical skill. Dog sighs; from where we stand he can see the beach and he wants to play. We are surrounded by my neighbour’s sheep. I laugh as I realise that dog and ewes are all looking up at the movement in the air: gravity-defying swallow-swoops of iridescent jet and clotted cream, with hints of flashing turquoise and scraps of cinnamon, tumbling again and again over woolly backs, dog and me.

The birdsong is vibrant and joyous: I can hear curlews among the rampant voices of skylarks and gleeful chitterings of the swallows. Then I catch a glimpse of a pale grey raptor. In the bright light I cannot tell what species of bird it is because its undulating flight path is heading directly into the morning sun. For a few minutes the birdsong across the bogland is discordant, but it soon settles.

At the very edge of my senses I think I see coloured song-ribbons waving in the breezes. Atoms of air are binding with musical notes and as the day begins to warm they are bound together tighter and tighter by molecules of fragrance. The aromatic incense of Myrica gale (bog myrtle) is rising and roaming through and into everything.

But I must carry on to the beach; dog has his ball and is impatient for his game. So I breathe in deeply and turn to the sea.

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.
This entry was posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, geology, landforms, landscape, nature, photography, Spring, Uncategorized, walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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