Well, there it is. A crest, a summit, a passage – the summer solstice. The half year has outpaced me. I am still dawdling and thinking of spring. And for all the calendrical rushing forward, for all the clocks and dates and diaries hurrying onwards, our Highland summer has been later than usual in arriving. June has been mostly grey and damp, misty and midge-ridden, interspersed with just a few short spells of cheerful bright and sunny weather.
But what a sudden blooming now and what joy we’ve been gifted. A new granddaughter has arrived, her birth heralded by orchids flowering on the croft, by flag irises waving from the ditches, and cotton grasses nodding in accompaniment to the layers upon layers of birdsong, scent and gentle light.
Even on the cloudiest of June days, and there have been many, light has flooded in from the sea, bound up in rolling banks of cloud and waves that shove and push each other along the shore. The days have begun to incrementally shrink of course, an imperceptible ‘loss’ for now, but it will be another two months before our meadows are mature enough and ready for hay cutting. That’s a lot of summer yet to come, a lot of growth.
The cuckoos have gone – it’s a few days since I last heard them calling across our small valley. Time to head south if the light is leaving I suppose. Whatever the biological or environmental prompts my old book of Scottish birds says they leave in late July or even early August. And yet my notebooks record that for the last three years they have flown from South Erradale at the end of June.
A BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) project following tagged cuckoos as they migrate from sub-Saharan Africa along two main routes – via Italy or via Spain – reported that the most successful birds arriving this far north are most likely to have flown along the spine of Italy. Fancy passing over all the glories of ancient Rome, all those picture-postcard landscapes, to come to our semi-wilded wee valley to breed. According to the BTO cuckoos may spend almost half their year in Africa, more than a third on migration and around 15% here. So little time to achieve so much. And then, en route home, the adults apparently spend some time in Italy’s Po Valley where favourable conditions allow them to restore calorie deficits before the last leg of their journey. With my geographer’s hat on I think of the Po’s beautiful fields and woodlands presumably favoured by migrating cuckoos but also the old cities with some of the highest levels of air pollution in Europe. (Do cuckoos fly around these pockets of particulate-laden air?)
It’s even more remarkable that the young know instinctively when it’s time to abandon South Erradale and fly south. In the garden and out on the crofts birds are feeding their young as fast and frantically as they can. I keep looking out for outsized ‘cuckoo’ babies but I’ve yet to see one. There are many bedraggled parents about, likely candidates for the extreme parenting that cuckoo young would need. I wonder if these tiny residents feel like I did with a gaggle of youngsters. A wrung-out dishcloth was how my mother described my state of permanent exhaustion caring for four. With just over a year between each baby there were long spells with two little ones in nappies. If only there had been the equivalent of an Italian recuperative holiday available to me then.
Warmth and the residual damp of early June have prompted another significant marker event. As the cuckoos departed, orchids began to spring up. Normally there is some overlap but this year, held back perhaps by the thoroughly cold and miserable May and early June, the ‘early’ orchids were late. Now they cover the dry embankment close to the house (always a surprise on so steep a slope) in gorgeous yet delicate floods and flurries of pale pink. In the last three or four days fierce purple blooms have erupted everywhere, their rich brightness splashed across the green sward like acrylic paint on canvas. Best of all, the pale creamy white blooms of butterfly orchids have spread even further this year, extending their range out across the meadows. I remember when they first appeared. I was as surprised at their after-sunset perfume as I was by their fragile beauty.
Last year the summer solstice sunset was pin-sharp. We watched the sun sink into the sea beyond the northernmost tip of the Isle of Lewis and turn small high level lenticular clouds bright crimson. From now on sunsets flip backwards and track along the spine of islands I can see from home. The Hebrides and, in the darker half of the year, the Isle of Skye become a solar calendar.
This year there were mists and wraiths and strips of high cloud that brought dazzle and glare in late afternoon but turned into the colours of cuckoo plumage as the sun vanished. It was cold at the cliff-top as I watched the sea smooth into aluminium-grey then pink. Quite where the pink came from, I couldn’t work out, but there it was. It was too cold for midges but moths flickered in and out of sight. I kept spotting them in the corner of my eye, catching them as I turned around, small clouds in the shadow-shelter my body seemed to cast. They were whispering to each other, ghost wing murmurs, full of tales for the telling.
There were other voices too, night-time singers in the simmer dim – corncrakes rasping and the strange winnowing ululations of snipe – gently spreading across the bogland that surrounds our crofts. I walked back home wrapped in wistful music and salted myrtle.
The silvery green days have been mild and wet and thick cloud has dampened and dulled the gloss of summer light. Compensation has come in great big lungfuls of thick, rich perfume. Bog myrtle scent is ubiquitous here but usually as summer progresses other scents rise to dominate the day. Yes, on some sunny summer days, it weaves between the beautiful aromas of growing grass and wildflower blooms but it doesn’t normally overwrite them. And yet, and yet, for some strange reason, at this solstice, in this grey and green dampness, the perfume of Myrica gale has been eye-wateringly strong.
I think I know why cuckoos come here. What lady would not be charmed by such perfumed delights?