So much happens in midwinter, not just the mayhem of a family Christmas but out there, beyond the walls and windows, down by the shore, in the fields and in the woods. Apart from the preternatural (and for me much needed) stillness at this year’s winter solstice late December and early January have bubbled and rippled with light and energy.
Early in December Storm Caroline swept across northern Britain. It is usual to experience hurricane force winds here and rather more unusual for such storms to severely impact the south. Often our November to February calendar is a chequer board of change: dark squares for wet and windy Atlantic weather systems, light squares for polar Arctic air masses. The former burst with storms, turbulent squalls and wild seas, the latter with glacial clear calm and sub-zero temperatures. The stormy westerlies cause havoc along coasts and sea lanes and dangerous, unstable conditions in the mountains. But the northerly air, flowing thick with cold and dense with snow cloud, brings mountaineers out in force. (Oh! What delight as new footprints crunch into pristine snow!)
Caroline was a colourful storm; she brought great heaps of purple and orange cloud, livid green seas and enormous aquamarine waves. She remodelled our beaches and wantonly threw mounds of sea weed, rope, plastic debris, tree branches and boulders all about the shore paths, and then topped everything with tall pillars of coffee-coloured foam. All the usual way-markers vanished. The sea bellowed, the air yowled. Though storm-days were largely sunless both the sea and sky pulsed with energy and power of their own; the Inner Sound glowed with phosphorescence and streamers of coruscating light, then it would fall dark as the atmosphere rumbled and loured with pulsing colour.
As Storm Caroline moved east her tail dragged air from the far north bringing legions of high clouds, grey bottomed, gold-topped, heavy with snow and ice. Many showers failed to reach the ground and were instead swept up to immeasurable heights; others, thunderous and rainbow-edged, dropped snow on our beaches even as bright green waves tried to sweep it all away.
Some cloud banks were so low and dense they mirrored the inky-blue waters of the Minches, and sandwiched between the bands of indigo, slivers of icy air ran bright and clear all the way to the snow-covered Outer Hebrides. On the Trotternish of Skye streaks of Christmas light decorated the Old Man of Storr in gold tinsel and silver lametta.
But now and then the sun shone in the rarefied air of high pale luminous skies and we paused to let the weak warmth caress our faces, and then turned to let it warm our backs. The Shetland ponies followed patches of sun around the fields, eyes half closed in pleasure, breath steaming. Strangely, on cloudy days, during the darkening hours after sunset, the mountain snowfields glowed, and although the low lying hills and coastal croftlands were slate grey and splattered with dark shadows of soot and charcoal, we could still see by the glimmering snow-light from Baosbheinn, Beinn Dearg, Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Tom na Gruagaich.
Solstice day itself was calm and pastel. Sunrise was marked with a cup of strong tea, late afternoon by a pather around Red Point. Seen from the hilltop viewing point high above the shore, the Inner Sound swings between Applecross and the islands Raasay and Rona; Loch Torridon stretches inland towards Diabeg and the ramparts of Torridon; Skye’s Cuillin peaks and Trotternish ridges are an undulating backcloth in whose clefts and gullies the winter solstice sun finally sets.
Sunset that day was hazy and diffident beyond the sea; grey, mustard-yellow and rosy vapours spread slowly and were reflected in the water. I enjoyed a momentary pause to sit on a bench that overlooks the Point and to reflect on the solstice in peace and think, as I always do, about my mum who died at midwinter, years ago. Below me on the beach my family continued to run and play in the fading light, their laughter rising up now and again through the quiet and stillness. As the sun sank further into grey shadow I breathed in the pale lavender light and tiny grains of ice and felt then as much a part of the natural world as the grassy turf and lichen spotted rock and hopping meadow pipits and swooping sea birds. As I breathed out I watched my warmed mist-breath mingle with the purple cold, and vanish.
There was so much noise, light, food and happy companionship over Christmas that I almost missed the quiet addition of a few millimetres of additional light that follow the midwinter solstice. But on a cold morning that basted by dull aluminium-grey clouds, a pale narrow beam alighted on a wafting cobweb. And I realised that amidst all the wrapping, decorating and cooking there had been shiftings and movings in the wilder world. Looking out across the fields I saw that light from the rising sun, yet to break cover, had indeed slid almost unmeasured along the silhouette of Meall Ruadh from its solstice position.
Meall Ruadh is a miles long hill and shaped like the curved back of a red deer. It borders our small crofting hamlet, protecting us from southerly gales, and runs from a high cliffed edge by the sea to meet the Torridon mountains in the east. From Red River Croft the junction between Meall Ruadh and Tom na Gruagaich appears as a V-shaped cleft, although in reality there are a series of knobbly hills and crags there. The midwinter solstice sun rises over the smooth flanks of Meall Ruadh but by the middle of January it has reached the cleft, and beams of light begin to track along my bedroom wall.
That wafting cobweb whispered of Christmas endings and family partings; there was clearing up and cleaning to do, but I took comfort from the thought that the extra minutes of daylight caught in the web heralded changes to come. The landscape might look and feel quiet, ‘Nature’ may seem to be sleeping, but already there is noise in our hedges, flickering in the gorse and rushes and bluster in the kelp piles by the shore.
This early January is a strange one. The new month arrived storm-less though with cold north winds, snow and ice, but as they swung around to the east they brought a batch of extraordinary blue days and golden clouds that glowed from within or as if back-lit by lamps, all bookended by fierce red dawns and livid rainbow coloured sunsets. These days were so full of blue and gold and silver magic that each breath in became a gulp of fairy dust and selkie song, breathing out an orison to the living world.
After months of gales and rain followed by heavy snow it has been so very welcome, this crisp freezing spell, and in the calm cold the ground has gradually dried and solidified. Walking across frozen peatland is noisy, like crunching along a gravel path. Sphagnum tops are rigid with ice. Their tiny filaments are mostly made of water so their rigidity holds even my weight as I step on their pale mounds. The fields are no longer quagmires through which I struggle in wellies; iced paths and tracks make for easier walks and the colours of dry rock and stone, no longer black with slick wetness, are bright and cheerful.
On the embankment in the top meadow today I looked carefully at the pitted frozen ground. In summer the slope was pricked with hundreds of small holes, millimetres in diameter, the homes of solitary bees; in autumn I had wondered how their eggs could survive water-logging for the turf leaked and oozed continuously; now in winter I wonder at their ability to survive the repeated freezing and whether ice encrusts the hibernating eggs in their pollen-lined nests. This same steep slope in summer is also carpeted with orchids and their seeds too must be waiting patiently in the grit and frozen earth.
But change is coming, cloud is building from the west, the stillness of morning has given way to a swirling wind. Above me hooded crows are quietly chattering, they chunner and maunder rather than raucously shout. And just by the hedge the sharp spears of snowdrops have thrust upwards through the ice-bound ground. What prompts their spark into life? I wonder if somehow, after the solstice, light penetrated the soil and sent a secret signal to their slumbering cells or made a cobweb dance.
I’m certain the crows know the nature of the secret signal; they look smug, and taunt me with tales of spring.