To the Winter Solstice

Snow lies on the mountains and until the sun rises over Maol Ruadh, the low dark red-brown hill bordering our valley, they are all pink and purple and dusky rose. On the peaks of Torridon, after a few days of wintry showers, the drifts will be deep, the white dazzling.

The ground is shrink-wrapped. Everything has hunkered down or huddled together. Around the croft are patches of ice, frozen hail and thin drifts of snow. We rarely get a complete covering of snow so close to the sea; here, there is always a breeze laden with salt. But just occasionally the Arctic comes to South Erradale. For a few days ice has rimed the grasses and rushes and mounds of dung in the meadows. Only heathers and bog myrtle are free of frost and snow. Caught in the morning light, myrtle glows rusty red. It sings to me, and I feel compelled to gather a few buds and scratch them to release the tightly enfolded perfume. There. Breathe in deeply. The living world in incense.

Recent weather has been both brutal and benign. Snow squalls riding on the Cailleach’s storm coat-tails steal the light and run away with warmth. Beira, Queen of Winter, the Cailleach, rides her wolf across the skies, bringing tumult and fierce cold. Her storm clouds are wolf-pelt grey and tangled.

Standing at my favourite go-to place – an old strainer post at the cliff’s edge near my home who’s gnarled wood offers scant protection from winds so cold my eyes ache – I have watched sunset skies blaze with the colours of heat and fire and furnace. Then in small pockets of shelter on the croft or local beach, I have whipped off my wooly hat in sunlight so bright and warm it has made the ground steam.

Over the last 48 hours winds have been running swiftly down the Minch. Nor’easterlies and northerlies are cruel. They delight in finding our weak spots; they trick and tease us, bringing bright white light one minute and coal-dust dark the next. There have been sunsets mottled with orange and turquoise, and sunrises of blood-red and purple. Red sky at night, red sky in the morning – Beira has been toying with us.

On Sunday, the first day of bitter cold and bright sunshine, we drove to Applecross, to see the Bealach na Bà without regiments of tourists. It was minus 9 at the top of the pass. My legs struggled to get going but I laughed with excitement at the wind and filled up with joy at the views. From the nearby summit a full panoply of peaks and mountain ranges opened. A grandiflora rose in full bloom, landskein and layers for petals.

Since then, in between jobs on the croft and Christmas preparations, we have wandered back and forth to our local beaches, snatching the dwindling hours of daylight whenever possible. Colour has come and gone, stolen by drifts of light and the pull of competing darknesses. Once, for a few calm hours at low tide, Opinan’s peach sands were decorated with symbols and shapes, where waves and sediments carefully measured and crafted repeating patterns, or drew strange organic structures – trees and roots and creatures from other worlds.

When winds turn to the north, the whole character of the sea changes. Colour, sound, the way it moves, what it does to the little beach. The relationship between the north wind and our coast is feistier, more so than wind from any other direction. Waves generated by northerlies are filled with noise and energy, they are tall and strong, broad and long, and generate mists and spume. Even if the winds themselves fade the sea contains such latent power the waves continue, darkly green and luminous, booming and resonating.

During these winter days, the croft settles itself into slumber. In such drenching cold, the living turf closes in on itself. Life has been absorbed back into the soil, and now the cold itself acts as a blanket, tucking in all the loose odds and ends and smoothing out the surface. Although it looks severe, this tightening and shrinkage will protect the earth against further extreme cold or intense rains and wind, and will keep vital carbon locked in. There are many places around the valley and beyond where the protective envelop of green has been lost. When heavy rains return, soil will be washed into the sea, and lost for good.

Three young Welsh mountain ponies are staying with us for a couple of weeks. They have a small section of croft to nibble at and the old byre for shelter. I pulled open a small bundle of their hay and the scent of summer poured out. I tried not let my mind run forward to haymaking, to the abundances of summer. Under our feet this year’s seeds lie, buried in darkness and frozen, but they are the golden source of next summer’s hay. Even with all this reduction and freezing and lack of colour, the promise of renewal is there, all wrapped up.

This mountainous part of the country possesses the ability to alter time and perspective. Our days shorten swiftly and vigorously. The winter solstice approaches. Christmas is coming.  As I write, official sunrise at this latitude is 08.55 but the sun does not actually breach the hills for another thirty minutes. When it comes, there is a fanfare of golden light. While we wait, the croft fills with pale lavender light and dark purple shadows, and the Red River runs blue.

The sun sets beyond the Old Man of Storr on the Trotternish peninsula of Skye, some fifteen minutes before its appointed time. On good weather days the great peaks of Skye are bathed in all the colours of a rainbow and the sea gathers the last rays of light. At other times, shafts and beams of pale gold may be sifted out of the darkest denim blues and plum-jam coloured sea. And on a clear day, all the hills reflect the heavens and seem to be made of glass, pure blue Murano glass.

This is a dynamic, turbulent and wickedly playful time of the year, no more so than when great squalls and snowstorms sprint through the gap between the Outer Isles and mainland and sweep past us.

They drag the light with them. They radiate light from within. They shine as if made of glitter and tinsel and Christmas baubles. They dance; they writhe. This is the kind of weather I truly love – great fistfuls of billowing storm clouds and fighting, snarling showers. But with myrtle buds in one hand and a scoop of frost in the other, I am ready for the shortest days of the year.

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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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21 Responses to To the Winter Solstice

  1. Fabulous images and wonderful writing, thank you so much, Annie!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin says:

    Reading that has been a lovely start to a Sunday morning (courtesy of Mark Littlejohn retweeting your original)
    Wishing you a very happy Christmas

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stephen Regel says:

    This was enchanting Annie – thank you for sharing it. I love the photographs and the writing. I’ve spent many years wandering the beaches and landscape of Wester Ross. Hardly missed a year in the past 35- Opinon, Redpoint, Mellon Udrigle – all being back memories when my children were little. Best wishes for Christmas and 2023
    PS: Really look forward to the book! 🙏🏼

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gail says:

    The colours and skies are glorious, the sense of wildness and vast scale are magnificent and awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing these riches.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gill McLorinan says:

    I would love to be at Badantional at this time of the year and your words create vivid pictures in my mind. Stunning photos, too, especially the storm clouds. The power and strength within them is awe inspiring! Thankyou for your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Stacy Lodico says:

    Annie, it is a joy to read your magnificent and educational literature! The ever changing landscape is so interesting and beautiful. Your photographs are stunning and capture the movement and excitement of the days. Your explanations capture the essence of the landscape. Thank you. I am wondering what time the sun sets. It seems you have very short days with sunlight. Blessings to you and Merry Christmas from Ohio! Hugs, Stacy

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ron Davies says:

    So evocative, Annie. Beautiful descriptions and images of the land, sea and sky. Thanks for sharing your writing and Christmas wishes from Crosby.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sandra says:

    Sublime as ever, Annie. Simply stunning. I cannot wait for the book! Date noted. And just in case this is your last post of the year, thank you for the words, the pictures, the beauty you have shared with us this year. Thank you for the joy. A warm, peaceful and Merry Christmas to you and yours 🧡

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another evocative post, filled with the dazzling power of those skies! Thank you, Annie, and Happy Christmas X

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you Michelle. And Merry Christmas to you too ❤️

    Like

  11. Came late to this post, Annie. Thank you for giving me some time in your beautiful landscape and weather. And writing means I can go back time and again! The poetry of your prose is so evocative, I savour every one of your words and images, all enhanced by the photographs as well. I could almost smell ‘the tightly enfolded perfume’ of the myrtle, and the smell of summer when you pull open the bundle of hay in a cold season – and feel how the ‘snow squalls drag the light’ with them even while your eyes ‘ache from cold’.

    Liked by 1 person

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