Snow appeared on our mountain tops with the back-turning of clocks, just as it usually does, so now days are constricted, confined at each end by swift sunrises and swifter sunsets. Each incremental diurnal shortening can almost be tasted. To catch dawn-dusk colours with a camera requires a nimble exit from the house and a dash to the top field.
November is a fickle month. Gusting winds from the west bring tall charcoal-grey towers loaded with rain, from the north and east come sharp, needle-thin zephyrs that moan as they spit ice and hail while southerlies drive waves of cloud that break across the hills and flash in bar-codes of alternating light and dark.
This is a tumbling, erratic time of year. Although birches begin shedding leaves before any other Highland trees, they are the last to fully give them up. Gradually, snow-white and silver trunks gleam as beams of light reach down deeper into the forests; with leaf-fall the branches are no longer summer russet-brown but are revealed in their truest winter plum-purples. For a time some leaves still cling tightly to the outer edges of each tree so birch woodlands shimmer with the last remaining yellows of autumn. Then in a single day of twisting winds they will fly and for a time the air will effervesce with lemons and oranges. Finally, when the last leaf has vanished, the bare birch-woods will gleam and become silver crowns tipped with gems of dark charoite resting on burnished beds of heather, bilberry and myrtle. Regardless of snow on the high peaks or gales from the west, it is this last magical leaf-flight that truly heralds winter for me.
Our croft fields are sodden. As I walk out and head to the shore the turf oozes water. There has been little respite from torrential rain since early September and now storm winds bring hail and snow so the burns and river run high, breaking their banks and sending sheets of cola-coloured water across our lower meadows. Today the Red River sparkles with silver and jet as cold, frenzied waves rush down to the sea.
At the cliff edge it is almost impossible to stand up straight. High above there are cloud-towers fringed with livid light by a sun trying to restore some heat to the world. Now and again, as gales tear at roaming gangs of cumulonimbus, lustrous beams strike the mountains or flash across the sea. Quickly though the miles-high vertical clouds regroup and soar taller still, foaming and fomenting and bringing with them the threat of thunder, snow and hail. More noise, more deafening sound, is hurled ashore out-shouting wave-break and spreading spume and froth. I cannot hear the sea-birds or even the wallop of waves as they thump down onto the beach. Everything seems made of sound, even the colours of land and sea, even my heartbeat and breathing. Wind sound, cloud sound; white, blue-grey, charcoal-black curtains; a sea of crumpled tinfoil; a rough and jaggy day of squalls.
And then, for a few moments I am able to stand upright as a rainbow races towards the shore. It explodes in a maelstrom of eye-blinding salt and grit. Violet to green, yellow to red.
There is less violence back at the croft. Birdsong fills the hedges that enclose house and garden and I keep trying (and mostly failing) to identify all the visitors by their voices; some are quarrelsome, others wistful. Robins, wrens, tits and song thrushes are boldest, unafraid of cats, pine martens or dog, quick to the bird table and feeders. Down in the byre there are raiding parties to the storage bins; tell-tale tiny droppings give away mouse-routes from stone wall to door to hay, and this morning there is one small spraint left by a curious otter. I put out feed for the two ancient Shetland ponies that need extra nutrients to combat the cold. And then I hear a familiar call, despite the noise of the wind; high overhead, more like fairy tale dragon than bird, an eagle swims smoothly and confidently despite the parrying gusts.
All across the croft and shore plantlife is battered and bleached of summer colour. What avoided being shredded by gales has been flattened by downpours. This matted, tangled net of vegetation protects underlying soils and peat, cushions of moss cloak tree stumps, boulders and stone walls, and writhes of bramble and whin provide little patches of shelter. The landscape is clothed in an ochre, russet and umber carpet. But here and there, dotted about, are bright spots of vivid green. Crowned often with pink spraint, the nutrient-enriched grass mounds mark strategic locations of ottery passage, and at this time of year they stand out, proud and tall, some as much as a metre in diameter. The largest are old beyond telling, otter kingdom boundary markers that have probably been used for countless generations.
The wet wild weather of recent weeks has not bothered the otters. On one scarp that runs down to the shore from an unused cliff-top croft is a muddy channel, slick with brown water. It is so smoothed by repeated otter-belly sliding it resembles an old, well-used children’s slide in a city park.
But the storm winds have brought death to our shore. A young minke whale was washed up by the September equinox high tide, its body battered and broken, flippers and tail lost, great scars along its side. What killed it will never be known. For a time, the carcass provided food for many: different types of birds, insects and other carrion eaters. Now only a few bones remain scattered here and there along the shingle shore, tangled up in seaweed and rope. No doubt the winter will bring other deaths. Only the very tough and canny will survive the seasonal tempests and hurricane force winds.
The cetacean’s bones are big and beautiful, and almost too human in form, so I feel its loss deeply. I have retrieved a few vertebrae as keepsakes of the whale and the stormy seas that brought it to our shore.
They will be a reminder of the fragility of a life in the wilds, not least my own.