Storm and memory

Saturday was one of our warmest days yet. High humidity levels enhanced a cloying, dense as well as heated lower atmosphere. The weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms for North East Scotland but not here. And yet, and yet… the afternoon began to feel tense and, to me at least, potentially thunderous. The garden birds appeared to react to the changing conditions too. They squabbled furiously on the feeders and yelled raucously from the hedges. Gangs of goldfinches fought each other fiercely as if the weather was making them tetchy.

Soon the view over the croft garden hedge began to change. Bright azure skies were quickly overtaken by high building clouds. It was hard to judge their height but in relation to the 1000m hills of Torridon that make up the jagged horizon of our south-easterly view, they appeared to stretch up at least 10km. Then the cloud tops disappeared altogether for they were building too swiftly. Below the masses of indigo-blue, bright-white cumulus roiled and boiled, merging then separating. Yes, I was certain, a big ‘storm-cell’ was heading our way.

View upriver towards the Torridon mountains.

The main body of ink-blue was beautiful. It was also turbulent, writhing and fast moving. Silvery-grey shelf clouds began to extend south giving the impression that the system would veer that way.

Shelf clouds form over the Maol Ruadh.

Cooler outflow winds soon came with the shelf clouds quickly spreading over Maol Ruadh, just upriver from our crofting township. At the same time, rotation was instigated and pedestal clouds began to develop with multiple lightning strikes around the rotating updrafts. The whole mass had developed into an independent convective system (a storm-cell) with a sharply delineated, almost ground-hugging base as it moved rapidly towards us, down the valley and towards the coast.  As the centre came closer still there were more lightning strikes to earth and cloud-to-cloud.

The change in pressure was remarkable. It was swift enough to induce a quite unpleasant headache and sudden changes in wind direction as various parts of the storm cell passed by.

But one of the most curious sights was of dozens and dozens of swallows flying hard despite the lightning and feeding whenever the gusting winds came and went. I had the sense they were tracking wind direction and therefore the passage of the storm. Downdrafts and changes to air pressure, temperature and humidity seemed to raise clouds of insects and it was these the swallows chased.

Finally, in the rear flanking downdraft, sharply delineated shelf clouds formed once again until torrential rain arrived and obscured any further semblance of form or structure.

The whole storm passed us by in just over an hour but it took out power for fourteen!

Watching the storm build, develop and then display textbook features, firstly from the croft and then from the safety of my attic, was fascinating. I love storms but am always unsettled by thunder. In a super-cell I often feel direct physical impacts on my body, headaches, sinus pain or earache and so on, but such storms also play mind games. I was lucky enough to experience great thunderstorms in the high mountains of New Guinea, displays of cloud growth and lightning that we would rarely, if ever, see here. And yet I felt secure even in the more exposed heights, thrilled by some of nature’s most raw and elemental displays of power. But I was young then. I thought of myself as a storm-chaser and mountain girl.

I lost that sense of youthful bravado years ago when caught in a summer thunderstorm here in the Highlands. On a warm cloudless day, I clambered up Stac Pollaidh with my family. The sky was a rich fierce blue; clouds in a sky so very blue were beyond imagining. The weather forecast had a baked-in certainty – no chance of rain, they said, let alone thunder. We sat on the summit for a while watching deer scramble about the rocks below us. They too were roaming higher places in search of rock-shade or damp cleft coolness. My daughter pointed her finger, “What’s that?” she asked. Beyond the hills to the south, we could see a dark mass of cloud. How it had begun when we had all been gazing into the blues of far away distant hills and valleys, the deep blue of sea and high dazzling topaz of sky I will never know, but there it was, like an ink stain on a shirt.

But I did know exactly what it was. I had seen sudden thunderstorms grow out of nothing in the tropics. “We need to get off the summit now,” I called to my husband and boys, who were cheerfully scrambling over the ancient sandstone crags, oblivious to the oncoming clouds. Together, we ran down the steep path and within a few minutes were overtaken by such fury. Deep darkness, white hailstones and shocking cold burst over us. Deer ran past and huddled tightly again the cliff face below the summit. Lightning began to strike. I threw my walking poles away. White-hot light struck a rock just a metre away sending steam and rock fragments into the air. All we could do was copy the deer. We knelt down to make ourselves as small as possible and hugged the cliff face. Again and again and again the lightning struck the mountainside. Boom, crack, smash, boom, followed sudden calm.

We got up and began to run once more down and around the shoulder of Stac Pollaidh. All the menfolk in my family are very tall and they quickly outpaced my daughter and I. The fury began once more. The boys vanished over the lip of the path, chased by lightning while we threw ourselves into a tiny rock shelter formed by a great boulder set amid heaps of heathery turf. From inside the ‘almost-cave’ we watched the storm. As the noise and tumult continued, we realised that the walls around us were quivering. The vibrations were not caused by the thunder or hailstones or by lightning strikes but by thousands and thousands of wings. We looked about us, astonished. Every tiny space was covered by bees.

Our breathing slowed. If the bees were sheltering here, we would be fine, I told my daughter.

For about 10 minutes we sat and watched and listened. Then, one or two bees flew out of the cave. Soon there was a stream. “Wait until they’ve all gone,” my daughter said, “Its only polite.”

I have never been caught in a thunderstorm on a mountain again. I am mountain weather-forecast savvy. But with every storm I see from my Highland home, with every great writhing storm-system that flaunts its might and beauty, I remember the wisdom of deer and bees.

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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.
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13 Responses to Storm and memory

  1. peatyjen says:

    This is stunning writing. Every student of geography should read this to learn the sequencing of events of a storm. Written with such a sense of feeling born of actually having experienced both this recent storm and the one with your family years ago. I love it that Lizzie wanted to be polite to the bees!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sheila de Courcy says:

    Such a powerful account and photos, a glimpse of Scotland. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Davies says:

    Wonderful description of the storm Annie. Just like being there!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. gedyessj says:

    I remember being on Langdale Pike as a storm came in. I was frightened. The chaps I was with sensibly only informed me later that my long hair was so charged with static from the storm that it stood, a foot erect, haloing my head. Beautiful piece Annie xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sandra says:

    This is such a vivid piece. My heart was in my mouth for a while but as soon as you mentioned the bees I knew you’d be ok. Thanks for this post, Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic piece of writing. A thrill to read. And then that quiet dark with the bees. Lovely.
    I’ve been on Ben Macdui in a hail storm where the force of the hail ‘liquefied’ the gravel surface so that we were knee deep in floating gravel.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Uncorking a Global Brainquake – nicktomjoe

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