The Cailleach’s hammer

Just as January became February thunder and lightning swept through the mountains. A final furious berating by Beira, the Cailleach, Queen of Winter? I very much doubt it. Winters here have a habit of returning in brutal, fast-moving surges, always fighting the return of spring.

January has come and gone with ‘hare and tortoise’ changes of speed. Time has both stood still and galloped away. I am blaming covid. As the new year began, I was finally caught; my whole family were. As someone who shielded for two years until the Scottish programme was effectively ended, I had been anxious about its effect on my immune system, a system already compromised, and anxious too, for the children and their little ones. They (we) have all been so careful, but clearly not careful enough.

We went south for Christmas and New Year, for a long-awaited family gathering, all of us testing before our journeys began, all virus-free, testing again during our time together. Quite how the virus found us, we are still not sure. We had been together for almost two weeks when it struck, all starting with symptoms within a day or two of each other. Presumably the same source infected us all. From the youngest at eight months to the eldest, attacks came in different ways and with differing degrees of severity. Soon it began to feel wickedly personal, as if the virus had specific business with each one of us, with deliberate and targeted impacts on our bodies. Some recovered quickly, some of us are even now struggling with coughs, aches and pains.

I think illness, wrapped up with concern and nursing, warped time. At our worst, we helped look after small ones at their worst, while parents struggled to deal with their own symptoms and lack of sleep. The days lengthened and shrank in peculiar drifts, passing very slowly then incredibly quickly. As we started to feel better, in some unspoken way we began to recognise the need for space and a gentle return to ‘normal’. So we came home, avoiding human contact, masked and apprehensive, still feeling dreadful, guilty leaving the youngsters behind.

Once here, recovery stalled. We tried to get on with work on the croft, but I could only manage short walks with the dog. Their purpose was to gulp down the fresh Highland air; I desperately wanted it. I watched the sea from my favourite small space at the top of the cliff.

My first sight of the sea after covid fever dreams was a blessing. Such strange, otherworldly colours, the lines of light and thick drenches of cloud. I let snow clouds rush past, gusts of cold wind wrap around my body, and salted ice settle on my cheeks and eyelashes.  When stillness came, biting frost seared my cheeks and bursts of light warmed my back. There is healing to be had even in the harshest weather, in the stark glare of a fierce winter sun. I love it all.

Squalls flew towards us over the Minch with thunder hanging on their coattails; others ran through the mountains with bright frills of ice-white around their deep purple hearts. On several dark days, the only light came from within high tumults of cloud and a sea shivering in arctic blues, from white foaming waves cresting the shore and the wings of geese as they flew over the croft. As wind speeds increased, the storm clouds shredded then coalesced; mountains appeared then vanished. Biting cold filled every nook and cranny, wrangling into the house.

Often the dark grey roof-slate skies rippled with strange granular light while pinprick beams of pale yellow struggled to reach the valley. We tumbled through those days, washed, rinsed and blown dry. We alternated between feeling good then a few short hours later, wanting desperately to sleep. Strange effects on both body and mind, temporal shifts, strange tastes and scents in the air. Recovery then relapse, in time with the storm winds and flickering light.

Bursts of sudden calm restored us. We felt ready for action, happy to get on with the business of preparing the croft for spring, blessed by blissfully blue gold and silver mornings. The gentle air breathed in time with the sea, and I forced my own breaths to match the deep pull of cold air and long sigh of release.

But after each spell of glacial calm, beyond their sunsets of red and orange, we watched sooty smudges and smears of high distant cloud, warning of wilder weather gathering again over the Atlantic.

One day the Outer Hebrides and Skye completely vanished. The Minch was covered by bling, fragments of precious jewels thrown across the green sea, skittering about and flashing brightly, the turbulent glittery sea in stark contrast to the dull sepia and rust of our fields and surrounding bogland.

During the last week of January squalls clustered together as storms. Nameless, violent January storms. With every one, great clouds lifted high overhead, ink-blue and murderous, then dissipated in tufts and fluffs of dirty cotton. Snow-melt and torrential rains filled the burns. As they ran in spate, they re-sculpted the beach, meeting and fighting with cacophonies of waves. The Red River spilled out over the croft. The ground squelched and leaked black water with every step. But gradually, ever so slowly, each new bunch of storm clouds also carried brief hugs of warmth and light. Now the light is more than a ghost, it has heft.

Then, on January 26, in unison with a spell of rainbow coloured calm and waters still enough to be written upon by breaths of air flowing from croft to sea, song thrushes began to sing, their voices lifting around the croft, so full of life and joy and determination, they made me cry. I think I was crying with relief, at the thought of winter passing and hints of spring. I wept too for all the losses, not just the wilder creatures lost in storms but for those lost to covid. Since the virus struck my family I have constantly talked about how lucky we all were, how blessed. The wildness of the weather is also humbling; it is not only the pandemic causing damage, but shifting patterns in nature, the intensification of storms, their increasing frequency. We are all bound up together, nature, weather, people, place.

There is much to be hopeful for too. Although the croft is still drenched and sodden after all the snow and rain, here and there, next to small rocks are piles of snail shells, song thrush kitchens, evidence of very busy lives. There is otter spraint on the riverbank by the old silver birches and in sheltered spots, small groups of flies briefly glitter as they dance. The return of life is a promise held in lemon yellow beams of sunlight and crevices of almost-warmth.

The thrushes sang strongly through the latest big storm, this end-of-the-month unnamed storm that roared in over a sea made of azurite and malachite, and is still blowing hard.

I do not know if the thunder woke the wildlife at midnight on January 31st, but as I got up and looked out at the dark, I saw the Cailleach’s hammer glinting as she smote the hills. She will not give up so easily; she is not finished with us yet. There is more wild weather to come.


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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5 Responses to The Cailleach’s hammer

  1. peatyjen says:

    Once again, Annie has produced a captivating and beguiling account. As someone who would love to visit that part of Scotland, her descriptions do at least allow me some sense of imagining life up there. Her account of the impact of Covid is written appropriately and not in a ‘poor me’ style. Her excellent photography is used to brilliant effect to enhance the impact of her beautiful writing. I want more of this. Thank you, Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Davies says:

    I can feel the storm from here Annie! A wonderful descriptive piece. So sorry to read that you and the family were all affected by Covid. Hope all are recovered with no lasting side effects.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sandra says:

    Glad you are all recovering, Annie. Keep warm, rest, heal. And keep writing 💛

    Liked by 1 person

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