Our dry weather continues. A few feeble showers have passed through occasionally overnight so the track to the sea remains dustily hard. The ground is unusually desiccated, the soil crumbly; it is the kind of dryness that would be found in limestone or chalk territory not in the land of peatbogs, lochs and cool temperate rainforests. Winds are cold but it is possible to find a sheltered spot and be warmed thoroughly by the sun. After the intensity of bog myrtle other scents are coming to the fore. I can smell the greening of the fields and a few special places are almost Mediterranean, filled with pine and citrus, dry earth, herbs and ozone, mixed together by the intense bright light.
On one of the high banks above the small floodplain there is an old plank on top of two even older tree stumps. My husband made this wee seat for me in the shelter of gorse bushes and a fence woven from wire and living willow. Sitting there I can see the sea and over the Inner Sound to Skye, and when my eyes are not scanning the horizon or gazing up at the passing clouds, I can watch the wildlife comings and goings across the fields below and along the riverbank. It is a warm quiet spot, hidden from everything and everyone (apart from my neighbour who waves at me from her own semi-hidden seat among the flowers of her beautiful garden two fields away).
The gorse bushes are coming into bloom now. On their sunny sheltered sides I can smell coconut and sun-cream, on windy sides all I can sniff-taste is marzipan. Every single flower is a furnace of yellow, and in the full midday sun it becomes hard to distinguish the shape and form of each individual flower.
There are other yellow flowers too, including marsh marigolds and dandelions. The marigolds are a symbol of Beltane here and are found in abundance now in wet flushes and ditches.
Dandelions are defiantly, brightly growing wherever they please. Some dandelions grow vigorously in good soil, others strive in deprivation and hardness, and it is impossible not to marvel at their tenacity. Little wonder they spread out from their original homelands across the globe. I recently listened (belatedly) to Robin Wall Kimmerer in conversation with Robert Macfarlane (link below), and now each time I see a dandelion I think of them as “global citizens” and “medicine for the land”. They are ubiquitous and their ability to draw up nutrients and water from deep in the ground explains their success in places of deficit but also just how beneficial they can be. That they are covered in insects at the moment seems to be a bonus; they are vital for emerging bees in this part of the country where the fullness of spring is much later to arrive than in the rest of the UK. As Kimmerer says, we should be celebrating them the world over.
Above and around us the skies are crystal clear and starkly bright in spite of relatively high humidity. Going out necessitates dark glasses and a peaked cap pulled low. The light is opulent, joyously, densely opulent. It is full of mirth and boldness. It dances on the sea and skims up the river. Even under the net of branches provided by an old riverbank birch, flashing pennies of light make my eyes water.
There are stories from towns and cities about the emergence of wildlife during the Great Confinement, creatures that hitherto kept to the shadows away from the busyness of human activities coming out into the fullness of the day. It is no different here. Although we are in a relatively remote corner of the UK, we are locked down too and traffic is almost non-existent, just croft (farm) vehicles to-ing and fro-ing between fields and byres. Even they seem quieter, a little more subdued than normal. But the deer have become much bolder. At this time of year they are usually heading up into the mountains, but instead they are regularly raiding the crofts. They have ignored my ribbon-frilled strands along the fences protecting our vegetables and have jumped the gate into my neighbour’s garden, a route they would normally not dare.
But in the ‘quiet’ of lockdown I have seen a few different animal behaviours, ones that I, at any rate, have not observed here before. A few days ago I watched a female sparrow hawk lifting up and down as she followed the river. She seemed to loop along the length of the river in shallow arcs, each loop/arc a few metres in length and a couple of metres into the air. At least a dozen times she vanished below the level of riverbank vegetation. Was she fishing? I think so. And yesterday as I sat on the shore watching oystercatchers trip up and down barnacle-crusted and winkle-coated boulders, a cuckoo passed by flying low and parallel to the sea. I have never seen a cuckoo down there before. He (I think) was close enough for me to admire his storm-cloud-coloured plumage. The shore and coastal meadows are very busy with small birds nesting or preparing to nest so perhaps he was scouting out potential hosts for the coming days.
The broodiness and impetus to mate must be all-consuming. I marvel at the fortitude and determination to have young, to keep singing, build nests and feed young. The dawn chorus bursts open the day; the evening chorus settles the night. Birds sing with full voices and hearts from the earliest pre-dawn shivering of light that emerges from the north-eastern hills above Erradale until the last ribbons of tangerine and turquoise along the north-west horizon over the Minches. They seem impelled by the light and lengthening days. Only under the soundless pop of rapidly emerging stars do they fall quiet.
For almost all of our Highland ‘Great Confinement’ so far the weather has been dry, the light kaleidoscopic and incandescent, the airs jam-packed with birdsong. The position of the setting sun has travelled from the Quiraing on northern tip of Skye along the ridge-back of Hebridean islands as far as the hill country north of An Cliseam on Harris. The apparent procession of sunset is rapid and in the recent good weather we have been able to watch the sun’s progress through skies flushing with orange, apricot, peach and satsuma, with cochineal, scarlet and plum, and with amber, coral and garnet. At times the calm sea at sunset has been as smooth as highly polished swirls of agate, at others it has flickered with bursts of citrine and opal.
From the piercing intensity of early mornings to late afternoon sumptuousness, and on to the lavish indulgences of sunsets the light has been full-bodied and precious. (This may yet turn out to be our summer!) The sun has burned brightly and defiantly, as yellow as the gorse flowers, as yellow as the marsh marigolds and as determined as the dandelions.
These are our confinement skies and in this time of pared-back living they envelop the days with opulence. This year’s spring light has filled the weeks and spaces left by loved ones and has brought promises of renewal, restoration, rebirth and regrowth, and more than any other of our Wester Ross springs, has brought hope for the future.
The lovely discussion between Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane can be found here: