Spring surf, seals and a selkie

The last of the unusually calm weather has passed. Normal service has been resumed with strong westerlies forging ahead of cloud banks smeared across the Outer Hebrides. Spring has retreated to the low hill behind me and dithers in patches of crisp sunshine. The winds are as twisted and tough as old dried heather stems; they bite and scrape at soft skin, moaning gleefully. At least the contortions of these old plants once aimed for the sun; the rasping breezes are fickle and directionless and pummel everything.

For a time yesterday sky and sea were no longer separate entities. They slid across one another in a fusion of mercury and silver. Rain fell in steel rods; colour was leached from the ground. What had been effervescent and Irn-Bru-orange on moorland became soggy-biscuit-dipped-in-tea-beige while hints of pea-green in our meadows sank into war-torn khaki. Even the burned toast patchiness of rock and heather on the hills merged into smooth darkness like grinds at the bottom of a coffee pot.

After more overnight rain the Red River filled and rushed to the sea in an avenue of ringing sound. Small burns that normally sneak down adjacent hillsides under and through heather clumps shone in ivory ribbons. On reaching the lower meadows they darkened becoming dull and full of peat and soil fragments, twigs and other dirty debris. The rising peat-bog’s water table swelled iron-black pools to pearlescent plashes. When it finally stopped raining the mire’s surface was prickled with chalk-white brightness like a paper doily held up to the sun light whose beams slip through the punctured patterns. Flickering motion made the whole bog seem alive.

Strangely, despite the buffeting winds and roving showers there was little movement in the slight curve of Opinan bay until a dark grey shape rose through the milling wavelets. A seal. Then another. I counted eight in total. Their smoky faces were accompanied by sea birds: gulls, divers, even the tufted head of a merganser.  The birds bobbed along as if made of paper, origami creatures set afloat on a puddle. It is not uncommon to see a single seal basking in these waters on a calm early morning, head back and whiskers shining, but it is unusual for a large team to visit, especially in wilder weather. They have been here for over a week now. I had thought the turbulence and changing wave direction would drive them away, back to the shelter of Sheildaig perhaps, but no, they still seem to be taking advantage of the safe swimming and presumably good fishing.

I am jealous of their ability to ‘hang’ vertically even in choppy waters. I loved to swim in a rough sea and jump through big breakers as a child, and I still do. There is something comforting about being stirred about in a giant sea water pot that scrambles and fizzes against your skin. It is deeply cleansing and invigorating. And as I watched the seals from the dunes, well wrapped against the sand and salt filled wind, I was certain they were relishing their jacuzzi. Yes, there was no doubt in my mind, the seals were enjoying themselves.

Out in the rough corridor between the mainland and Hebrides a pewter ship reflected the sunlight that was nibbling at clouds. Its bow was bouncing hard, white foam breaking high upon the prow. Looking through binoculars I could see helicopters on its deck like lice on salmon and bright orange lifeboats fastened tight to its sides, glistening in the spray like the closed-up anemones on rocks at low tide. NATO have been playing war games along the west coast so there would be more ships out at sea but from my vantage point they were hidden from view in the silver salted air. Two jets flew across the mountains ripping through clouds and bludgeoning their way through the winds.

Local fishermen and wildlife cruise operators report that whales and dolphins disappear when war games begin or when the nuclear-powered submarines slip by. Perhaps this is the reason for seals in our bay; they do not want to play war.

Today the clouds are breaking. I cannot see any big ships. White crowns are shining on the waves and where they break open rainbow spray jets upwards. At the rocky coast below the croft the sea has been whipped into a growling, curdled grey-green porridge. Overhead bonxies fly. They have returned to nest and they skim along our cliffs sailing north then south as they hunt. Stonechats are playing marbles; I can even hear them above the noise of wind and breaking waves; they cling to wavering stems of heather or old, tough grasses that bend first one way, then another in the gusts.

What was pewter and steel grey yesterday is now mother-of-pearl and pale, milky turquoise. Sea and sky have parted though any conversation between them is loud and crinkled with moss-green waves spilling in from the west. There is more porcelain-white foam spurting across the sands and rollers are the colour of courgettes, flecked and shiny. At first I think the seals have gone but then I spot one and I soon realise they are all still here. They are diving through surf, splashing into breakers, twisting and turning, up and down, with an occasional glance shore-ward to see what humans and dog are doing.

I am immediately thrust back to my childhood holidays. I wanted to swim in all weathers and I usually did. My mother, wrapped in her coat, a wool scarf fastened tightly under her chin, clutching my towel, would watch and wait even in rain. I, wearing a black swimming costume, head in a white rubber cap, would dive through the crashing surf, gasping and choking on sea water, laughing with glee, skin red from cold and salt and sand chafing, not wanting the wild fun to end.

“You are a selkie, you are,” she’d say.

“A selkie! ”

 

 

Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, myth, nature, peatbogs, photography, river, sea, Spring, walking, weather, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mists, mellowness and an otter’s supper

We have been languishing in benign, calm Spring brightness. The vernal equinox has prodded this place into wakefulness, shaking us all out of our winter wrappings. Music and song has erupted from every corner of the croft, from hedges and trees and fields, and from the river itself. We are all coated in melon-yellow and pearl-blue light strong enough to send lingering clouds scurrying away.

Visitors from the south have begun to arrive. One dew-draped morning, I sat on my log-seat at the southern end of our little beach, where rocks and boulders meet sand and machair, and watched two pied wagtails. Their evident delight at returning to ‘their’ patch of shoreline was displayed in a dance I had not seen before. Singing to each other they rose up vertically about a metre or two, dropping down almost immediately. In between each rising they flew back and forth across the sands, landing on boulders or on the loose stones. Their vertical flurries were accompanied by song, first one bird then the other, repeating the same ditty as they flew up, matching each other in tunefulness and height. Then they would move to a new spot and begin the whole ‘business’ again.

The wagtails stay all summer on this stretch of coast. Before coming to live here I had seen these small birds often in car parks and gardens but never on the great strands of north-west England. But here the beach is much smaller and quieter with a greater variety of habitat fringing the little bay: wet grasslands, old stone walls, machair and dry dune grasslands, and rocky outcrops leading to cliffs. And at its southern end the patches of peach sand are mixed with a confusion of rusty-red boulders and there is a steep bank of old dunes, covered with marram grass, fescues and newly emerging herbs that are tiny, roseate, prostrate and lancing green. It seems the wagtails like this tiny space as much as I do and now they have returned here to breed.

That same morning another pair of new arrivals skimmed past: bonxies! And the first sighting of the year. They flew slowly and silently, following the coast, heading north. It is unlikely they are a locally resident pair for they have not appeared again. And then, in the opposite direction, came a lone sea eagle, harried by a group of black-backed gulls yet unhurried by their raucous interferences. The great bird twisted occasionally to slew sideways or dip down closer to the water so his passage became an invisible curling corkscrew that eventually passed from sight beyond the cliffs.

I turned, and walking back to the croft, I could see bog myrtle flower-buds glistening. They are on the cusp of opening and releasing their perfume to the air so I picked a few and crushed them between my fingers and inhaled deeply. This is one of my favourite scents. If I could fill my house with myrtle I would. Then I noticed that the swathe of Myrica gale in our top field, the Park, so named by my neighbour whose father fenced it off decades ago, is both bud-less and flowerless. The small field has been ungrazed over the last five months and therefore there is only one culprit: deer. In a peat hollow, I could see large cloven footprints. The rascals had been in the fields again, stealing what they could.

These recent most spring-like of post-equinoctial days have ended as calmly as they began. On Mothering Sunday, after a warm day of sleeveless shirts and sunglasses, the evening was filled with almost-Mediterranean scents of earth, pine and myrtle. Both sky and sea were flushed with the colours of smoked salmon, mango and sweet potato. The sky was painted with cinnabar and henna until the sun sank between the Uists and Harris in a torque of gold. One last magnesium flare danced on the sea until it too vanished.

In the lovely weather our coastal waterways are busy as well as colourful. Yesterday I watched clusters of sea birds and divers floating on a calm sea whose surface looked newly polished. When the gulls lifted up and began to head out across the Inner Sound to the Minches, for a few moments, as they shrank, they looked like diamonds scattered across a billowing blue silk scarf, flashing until I could no longer see them. As the swirl of blues began to shimmer as if slicked with fresh paint I realised the Outer Hebrides had vanished and only the high ridges and humps of Skye’s Trotternish and white-topped, bladed peaks of the Cuillin were visible. Lilac and mauve smokes and vapours had smeared away the horizon blurring the view. I rubbed my eyes and tried hard to focus. The mists were moving in long rolling ripples and yet I could not determine their direction of flow.

By mid afternoon the fogs had rolled in and reached the Red River valley. They were cold yet did not block the light; rather they augmented it until all the world seemed to have been created from mother-of-pearl. Shape and form dissipated, yet sounds were exaggerated; I could hear the far-off calls of hooded crows, laughing. Above I could still see a forget-me-not blue sky and an occasional smear of primrose-yellow as the spring weather continued to pulse above the valley. Eastwards the highest peaks, Beinn Alligin and Baosbheinn, were as pennants fluttering in the breeze. Iciness tugged and pulled at me in the swirling haar so that every now and then I would shudder as I gardened.

Where the grassy turf meets shingle on the little stretch of coast below the cliff path I now have another log seat, a Mother’s Day gift, said my husband, better than chocolates. He had hauled a large spruce log up from the strandline and manoeuvred it into place, parallel to the waves, and had sawn off knobbles and knots so that it was smooth and comfortable to sit upon. It smelt of resin. But the most wonderful thing about this gift was that I could watch the comings and goings of otters who favour a cluster of rocks nearby for entering and leaving the sea.

And yesterday evening we walked through the lavender mists to sit and watch the mysterious fogs sliding over a sea of mercury. The sun, we knew, was going down quickly. Over the banks of haar, now the colour of sea-aster flowers, the sky was silver and slate. There was a hint of sunlight, a pale-silvery sheen that marked the surface of the sea though no boundaries between ocean and sky were visible. By the log-seat we gathered drift wood and made a small fire; it seemed strangely vivid and luminous and almost inappropriate in the near-glacial calm, even though its flames were small.

Gradually the mists began to shrivel and overhead tatters of small pink clouds appeared, painted in scarlet and carmine by an invisible setting sun. Soon these too dispersed and everything, stones, waves and sky, turned silvery-blue around the orange flickerings of our fire.

There was no sound apart from an occasional slosh of water on boulders and a crackle from burning bark. Then a dark head appeared, nose first, from the quicksilver sea; it was a seal. We sat quite still, the water’s edge only a few metres from the fire, and watched as it gazed at us, hints of yellow flame in its large eyes. The seal dived; time and time again it resurfaced to look at us. There was another flash of sable; two seals we said. But no, it was an otter, swimming along, head up, and then diving with a high loop of its back and flick of its tail, resurfacing seconds later. These movements were repeated as it came closer and closer to us. And then it clambered on a large flat rock with something held firmly in its mouth. The catch was a crab whose body was bigger than the otter’s head.

We watched, enchanted, for almost fifteen minutes as an evening meal was dealt with and dispatched at leisure. This was the closest, longest encounter we have had with one of our most secretive neighbours; and it felt intensely personal as though we too had shared with the otter’s meal. All around us the landscape was calm and quiet. Apart from the dying fire the entire world was coloured with woad and indigo as day became night. We took some photographs but the dwindling light was difficult to deal with, and the images were grainy.

Strangely the sea began to fluoresce and the mists retreated. The otter slid into the sea and swam away. Overhead the first stars appeared and we walked back to the croft laughing and chattering about the strange weather and our otter encounter. As we opened the gate bats swooped over our heads causing us to look up again. We turned to face the north and watch them dash out over the bog skittering and scattering at great speed. In between their weavings and tumblings the Northern Lights flared and above us the obsidian dome of sky turned to alabaster as the stars of the Milky Way poured across it.

 

 

 

Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, otters, photography, sea, Skye, Spring, Trotternish, Uncategorized, walking, weather, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The vernal equinox and a spring clean

A young blogger (https://youngfermanaghnaturalist.com/) asked whether spring had arrived on the croft. I wanted to answer yes, but in truth, though there are patches of spring here and there and although it is the spring equinox, we are mostly still in winter’s thrall. So I must reply to Dara and say no, not fully, spring is not here yet.

There have been many signs of winter’s decline: skylarks are singing despite the bruising gusts of noise and hail, daffodils flutter their mustard-yellow skirts and hedgerow birds sing ever louder as buffeting shower pass over the croft. A few brave bumble bees have dipped and dived in our sheltered garden and I keep a close eye on the steep banks where I know solitary bees will emerge once the ground has warmed. Beyond the Red River valley moorland and mountain tops have not yet felt even a touch of spring. The upwards sweep of land is the colour of burned toast, patchily black, brown, dun and pale ochre under crackle-dry old heather and clumps of tussock grasses, and the peaks are pasted thick with snow. New vernal green growth is a wish, for now.

Yet today is dazzle-full and flare-filled. Light is coruscating; the air is brimming with moisture and every minute drop seems to explode with billions of thermo-nuclear fusions, and my eyes are watering. Overhead bright, white clouds are galloping across a blue sky-field whipped to a fast frenzy by the high flying, jockeying winds. Atop my shed the weather-vane shoots to first the north, then south and west, and then spins frantically. The forecast is for snow and thunder but so far I see no sign of high cloud tops building.

I go down to the byre to feed the old Shetland ponies; they will continue to need an extra boost of fermenting mash until the grass begins to grow. As I open the gate they whinny with pleasure at the thought of sugary sweetness. Jobs done I head for the shore with dog. He dashes across the fields down to the river and back up to the top gate, running so fast he blurs into a black, streamlined streak with white points at each end of his body.

On the other side of the track a large area of bogland glows bloodily. Although the stems of myrtle are changing colour and sprouting with new buds the whole bog seems to be shuddering in its winter coat of russet and ruby as the wind-squalls rush over. I stop though to check a bog pool; I have to grip the fence post as yet another fiercer gust shoves me in the direction of the black water. Since the first day of March frogs have been laying spawn in the shallow pool and now it seems there are more clumps of jelly than water. In the low-angled morning brightness the masses look silvery, each egg holding a single black comma. Dog is impatient. We carry on, dog now chasing after a piece of heather he tugged free of the bog margins.

As we reach the cliff edge a gust of wind nearly knocks me off my feet. The gales started at 4.00 am with a sudden, loud thumping and clattering of roof tiles and frantic clicking of hail on window panes. They show no signs of abating and as I look out across the Inner Sound huge, glowing viridian waves are fracturing into white splinters. Curtains of foam ride the breakers below us sending cold needles of salt and grit up the path. My face is smarting and my glasses are quickly frosted. Yet among the piles of seaweed, rope, twigs and branches, and fragments of plastic small birds fly up and down in brazen disregard of the powerful gusts and stinging spray. They sing above the noise and tumult of the sea. Up they climb twirling around each other to create a helix, then just as quickly they drop down to pick at another pile of seaweed left by the waves.

The sun is brighter as we reach the sandy beach. Great rolling waves of polished jade and malachite are running straight towards us. They explode in a fury of titanium-white spume; foam is hurled across the beach quickly building towers of wobbling lather. With each blast of wind these towers themselves detonate creating hundreds of small balls that roll at high speed over the sands, losing their white sparkling brightness as they do. At the back of the beach waving marram grasses catch the now-coffee coloured froth and create castles and gates and minarets, until they too are blown completely away.

 

The noise is deafening. I am well wrapped up but feel the cold sneaking under my hat to bite my ears. There is no sign of spring so close to the sea. But as I clamber into the dunes the icy blasts are moderated and I pause to watch the sea from a sheltered cranny. The surface waters inshore are a deep, shining emerald colour; further out the sea is darker, in patches almost midnight blue. Then I notice shards of silver and white dropping from the sky. Gannets, diving at great speed. I am astonished that they can see fish through the tumult of the roiling sea. I watch them for a while from the shelter of my nook.

I stand up and feel the full force of the wind again. Holding my arms out I stand like a cross and let the cold pass straight through. My eyes stream and my cheeks are coated in yet more salt. I gulp big, ice-filled breaths and feel the cold enter deep into my body. It is painful. Then noise enters too; and light. After a few minutes I no longer feel any pain; I am hyper-aware of my surroundings, of things moving, and singing and breathing, of the sands below my feet and the waves pounding the beach, and the sheer volume of life and energy all around me. Is this what it means to be truly human? To recognise that you are an integral part of nature, inside a wild space? I have the sudden urge to take my warm clothes off and dash into the waves.

I laugh at the madness of that idea and shudder with cold; the magic is broken.

Now I can see that a line of grey clouds I had thought was passing south to north over the Hebrides is in fact heading to me. I try to work out how much time I have and scramble down the dunes to pick up the shore trail home. Then I know I’m in for trouble because a sudden flurry of small birds rushes past me heading inland. The bright blue sky is being replaced by a wall of indigo and jet. For a moment or two the sea is still lit by the sun and it glows like a neon sign on a dark street. Then I realise the horizon is disappearing as clouds merge with sea. As I clamber up the cliff, I am battered by the winds and struggle to pull my hood over my woolly hat. I glance west and see a gap in the clouds and realise that the worst of the weather has slid north but one, fickle and mean-spirited break-away squall is rushing straight to us, its showers steel rods, hard and near vertical, ice-cold and yowling.

Hail falls in silver columns so thick I can almost grasp hold of them. Dog’s black coat is turning white. I am sure my cheeks have been cut by sharp knives.

I really am human; frail, and unable to cope with being an integral part of a winter storm-shower in spite of what I thought and felt earlier. And yet, as I approach the croft, the hail stops, the sun comes out and my skin begins to throb and tingle.

I must be glowing, for every cell of my body feels scoured clean, ready for spring.

 

 

Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, mountains, nature, sea, skylarks, Spring, storm, walking, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Grey tails and skylarks

As the first page of March opened, tall thunder clouds passed over the Cuillin and Trotternish on Skye and glided across the Inner Sound. Soundless, austere and stately, the heights of their heads were impossible to estimate and yet I heard no thunder, saw no lightning. In between these colossal mounds and from around their billowing edges white-hot beams of sunlight were thrown, fierce and piercing. This kind of weather bleaches retinas as easily as Alpine snowfields on a sunny day, so a lack of lightning was no surprise. Fast-moving and driven by westerly winds, the anvil-headed cumuli simmered like rice boiling in a pan. They brought short, sharp showers of hail and ice interspersed with white, bright prickles of light. But by day’s end they were suffused with saffron.

_dsc3808 The morning of St David’s Day was noisy as wind grumbled in the wires, snatching at branches and rustling through clumps of rushes. And along the shore metre-high waves, large green, aquamarine and cobalt blue rollers, appeared to match the energy and movement in the sky. Some were clear enough to see orange and burnt-umber seaweeds churning inside; others were translucent and milky as they sluiced back and forth sucking up fine sands. Their collective sound was greater than the noise of the wind and they surged and frothed up over the sharp rocks at each end of our little beach. Their foams and lathers were powerful enough to knock football-sized rock cobbles against each other while smaller stones were dragged back and forth, objecting loudly, so the whole shore clacked and smacked like the sound of bubble-wrap being popped.

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As showers lurched past, sunlight flashed creating gems and crystals everywhere; white spume turned to diamond and shining quartz, green and blue waves to malachite and jade, sapphire and azurite, red rock to ruby and garnet and orange sands to amber and topaz. Some cloud banks were so low they almost brushed the sea. The island-studded horizon of turquoise light was sandwiched between thick matching bars of cobalt blue, one reflecting the other. Birds taking off from the sea appeared as dazzling snowflakes that disobeyed the lines of icy showers whose dance formations were being directed by the prevailing winds.

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It was cold. Even as I walked back to the croft ribbons of sun-warming relief chased the showers but passed through my body swiftly. I looked up seeking gaps in the clouds and saw dark blue patches of the high outer atmosphere. Their blues seemed so deep they pierced my eyes making them water and I had a fleeting sense of spinning as if I could feel the earth’s position and movement in space, and I was temporarily unbalanced. Then careening clouds pulled their cascading hail-snow showers behind them closing up the lacunae. Now they looked like the well-combed tails of grey horses, preened and primed for competition, flowing, rippling and glossy with motion and energy. Down at the base of these shower-tails the bogland, orange in the shimmer of reflected light, soaked the wetness up. I imagined individual Sphagnum moss stems, tiny, fragile, delicate absinthe-green and blood-red, holding their uppermost fronds to the sky; a billion, billion microscopic hands cupped to catch the falling droplets.

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Rising up over fields and bog came a new voice, audible above the clacking and whooshing, hail-bouncing and wind-wailing: a skylark singing a song of spring joy as he rose high, then higher. All at once I, too, was filled with glee and knew that despite the wintriness this little bird was heralding the changes to come. Then, another bird rose, as if jolted awake by the first; then another, and another, until I could not count them in the bright light and dashing showers. Filled with gladness at the spreading colour, light and fickle warmth from the sun they began to hover, singing loudly, each matching the joy of the others. I simply laughed out loud; the sounds stopped dog in his tracks so that he too lifted his head skywards.

Back at the croft house, perhaps also roused by the skylarks, a cacophony of noise from the hedges greeted us: sparrows, feisty and pugilistic, shouting so brazenly that all their songs blended into a single stream of sound, like static from an old radio stuck between stations. There seemed to be so many of them I could not separate out individual voices nor decipher their conversations; their social media intranet was encrypted.

Try as I might the blended vibrancy of house and tree sparrow song is still too cluttered to unravel, but now I can hear other songs from the little patches of hedge and woodland: robins, blackbirds, song thrushes, blue, great and coal tits, wrens, chaffinches, goldfinches and the cooing of collared doves. There is energy and movement and a sense of excitement about.

For a few days roaming bands of starlings have also added to the music. They come to the wires in neat rows, bunched up like an audience in the seats of an old theatre, almost too close for comfort, and their voices babble and bubble as if waiting for the show to start. When they rise up their colourful coats with sparkling flecks vanish and they billow and churn like blackened fragments of burnt paper from a dying fire. Through the showers and sunshine they gambol in clusters until they drop to the wet meadows and the chattering begins again.

Geese have also begun to fly, turning their heads northwards in answer to some unseen signal; in small groups they dip down to the meadows and lochans before lifting up again to disappear from view. The migrations have not yet started in earnest but the geese are slowly and steadily moving around this wild landscape feeding as much as possible, readying themselves for departure later in the month. Like me they have been roused by the skylark’s singing, by the wild and fast-paced changing weather and by the overwhelming sense that the land is changing.

While winter still reigns in the high mountains, here, by the sea, we are sensing spring, in spite of the curling, stinging showers.

There is frogspawn in the pools of black water across the bogland.

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The fantastic beasts (of Trotternish) and where to find them

Buffeting breezes and grey rains have returned yet the signs of spring are manifold. There are snowdrops gasping in wide open surprise at the lack of snow and ice, crocuses vibrating in purple and orange and daffodil spears bursting through turf and soil. Birdsong has changed. Only a few days ago it was bubbling but subdued and still filled with winter melodies. Now the first stirring strains of romance and joy and excitement are trilling from trees and hedges. Not long, they call out, not long, spring is coming.

But on the western horizon sits the dark blue-grey silhouette of a monster, stretched out, maw facing south, curling tail draped north; it is a shadow-creature from aeons past whose back bones undulate as if contorted in torment, unable to fully unravel itself.

As long as mists or low cloud do not wrap the world up in gauze, it is possible to pick out high points along the horizon and mark dipping weaknesses in the beast’s body.  I see it every day from the croft and coastal paths or down on the beach. It must be made of magic because its colour and transparency change; a shape-shifter then. This is the Trotternish, a long peninsula of northern Skye, created by magma and movement in the interplay between unimaginable crustal forces.

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Standing in our high field I see the soul-shape of Trotternish. I can watch its changing colours every day and marvel at sunsets as they travel back and forth along the undulating horizon across the year, solstice to solstice.  These skeletal forms have names: Old Man of Storr, Beinn Edra, Quiraing, Meall na Suiramach; they roll from my tongue as I trace them on a map and I feel like a student learning the names of vertebrae and other bones in a medical textbook. Beyond, other fantastic beasts emerge: the Uists, Harris, Lewis, the Shiants.

These island-beasts move. When the sun sets through a cloudless sky they seem almost close enough to touch: lavender and purple bruises against a sea of pink and gold. At other times they disappear, swallowed whole by skeins of cloud. And when showers race up through the Inner Sound to spill out across the Minch they pulse and flex as if alive and breathing.

I see them in some form or another every day. I look for their familiar shapes and shadows, highs and lows billowing from south to north, prickling with detail and sparkles of light or as faint, uncertain splodges of grey and silver. The silhouetted spinal column of Trotternish stretches out in front of me as I head across the fields and I have come to love its weather-dependent rolling gentleness as much as its Hadean cragginess. Occasionally I can see, following a spell of ice and snow, the harsh grey spikes of the Old Man of Storr below the basin of Coire Scamadal.

The last days of January were filled with sharp blue clarity and unusual, unseasonable warmth. We left the croft behind and crossed the Skye Bridge to stay in a small cottage tucked neatly below the monster and from here we set out to explore.

At each end of the Trotternish otherworldly, thrusting and convoluted forms are woven into the fabric of the rock. There are formations so outlandish they could have been moulded directly from fantasy or fairy tale; there are high hanging waterfalls, crenellated ridges and scooped out basins.

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And sitting beside them are mountains piled high in aiguilles and fissures, inaccessible, demanding, murderous and remote, hidden valleys concealing shining lochans, layered cliffs and white coral beaches.

Some can be seen from the roadside but others must be earned. Steep paths lead up to pinnacles and clefts created in great cataclysms of rock and magma, pushed and pulled and pressed in titanic crustal forces then scoured by ice and washed by rains. Turn this way or that and the formations reveal themselves: a wizard’s hat, a gnarled face, a line of soldiers, a dragon’s head, a dining table for giants. Turn again and light cascades across the landscape, painting slopes in turquoise and violet, splashing peach juice into lochs and dabbing clouds with crimson.

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Having stravaiged the magic of Trotternish, when I set out tomorrow morning to walk across our own croft fields I will cast my eyes to the beast’s contorted spine, drink in the colours and lights and smile, because I know the secrets that lie hidden there now, beyond the Inner Sound.

And they are fantastic.

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Posted in environment, experiencing nature, geology, landforms, landscape, legend, mountains, myth, nature, photography, sea, Skye, Trotternish, walking, wilderness, wildlife, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Gille Brìghde and a day of light

Yesterday, early, before the real time of rising, brightness crept in around my bedroom curtains. Not the silver-grey of moonlight or hints of auroral green but a sharper, clearer shaft of pearl and turquoise. This was the first time my retinas and brain had reacted and I came sharply awake. Sunrise, when the sun skims above the southern flanks of Torridon’s Tom na Gruigaich, was more than two hours away but I felt it, this returning light.

The Celtic festival known as Imbolc, February 1st, is the mid-point of winter, when light begins to grow perceptibly, or so we are told. And over the last few days there has been a sense of excitement emerging from the hedges and fields, as senses, far more attuned to nature’s signals than I, have begun to respond. There has been a greater variety of birdsong and increasing numbers of small birds scooting across the fields.

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So the day fell open like a heavy book whose pages part at a much loved chapter, a day of promise and yellow brightness, when eye-watering beams of cold clarity spread out from behind the mountains to scoop up any remaining iciness and purple shadows and prompt us into wakefulness. If this is what the ancients meant by Imbolc I could see it unfolding before me as mustard-yellow sunlight crept over the fields towards the house and then, sweeping over me and west to the sea, began to paint the sparse violet clouds with coral and cream.

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Later, down on the shore, a light wind blew. It takes another full hour after rising over the mountains for the sun to spread champagne light across the beach, but when it comes the sands sparkle, shell fragments flash and sea weeds glisten. Then the world appears to transform from a two dimensional pale-grey photograph into a 3-D pop up theatre of colour and texture.

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I was not alone. Clusters of birds stood still, unmoving as the sunlight spread out before them and they seemed to be enjoying the gentle touch of warmth. There were oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sandpipers, gulls of many kinds, turnstones, three herons and two curlews. They stood motionless for some time as the high waters sluiced back and forth and as I watched. Several birds then hopped up from the sand onto the machair and began to pick at the grasses, hunting for insects and worms.

Pagan Imbolc is also the festival of Brìghde, goddess of fire and fertility, who was transformed into St Brigid/Bride as the Celtic world was Christianised. In Gaelic the oystercatcher is called the Gille Brìghde or Guide of St Brigid. Legends tell us that she would send out the feisty birds to guide ships to safety and I can understand her choice. Any sailor would recognise their piercing and distinctive calls and know a safe shore was near.

On the beach, ruffled by a rising breeze and at last aware of dog and me, the oystercatchers called out, their voices echoing and strident. And as I moved closer they shouted to all and sundry, and, perhaps remembering their part in Brìghde’s story, began to separate and go about their business.

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The whole day was flushed with light. Across the Inner Sound much of Skye remained under deep blue cloud with the odd silvery shower seeping through the gaps in the spine of Trotternish.

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But here was dry and oddly calm. We are waiting for the winds to return and yet in the afternoon, as I walked out again with dog, the airs were still enough for tiny flies to emerge over myriad pools of water on the bog. I wondered if they were early non-biting midges, Chironomids. One of my colleagues used their remains, found in peat bog cores and lake sediments, as indicators of temperatures in the remote past and I watched, fascinated by their flickering, as they danced over the black waters among the mounds of Sphagnum moss.

Heading back to the house through the top field I noticed hundreds of worm casts across the grassy turf, more than I have ever seen there before. Low beams of sunlight picked out the tiny curls of soil. So worms, too, have felt the change through the earth and headed up to find the light. It is a good sign for the field; the ground is waking up.

When darkness finally came, there were other Imbolc lights in the sky: a new crescent moon flanked by Venus and Mars, both shining like newly polished gemstones and flashing with alien energy. I needed to bring in some wood for the fire but went to the gate to look out over the peatland. I stopped, leaning on the uppermost cold metal bar with folded arms, and gazed out in the darkness seeing only vague shadowy shapes, and I listened to the distant sound of waves breaking on the shore. Then, with an intake of breath, I realised the landscape was not dark at all, there were hundreds of miniscule glowing Venusian and Martian planet-lamps, all reflecting back from the mirrored surfaces of the bog pools, as if each small body of water had lit a candle.

And then I remembered. Of course, it was Candlemas Eve.

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Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, legend, midwinter, mountains, myth, nature, peatbogs, photography, sea, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Winter darkness is always threaded with light

Winter still stretches out ahead in a long slow arc. Occasionally it feels like travelling on a motorway through a wet, dark night, headlights on full. Beyond the limits of pale beams nothing can be seen even though we know the asphalt carries on and on. It is wearisome, that kind of travelling. And at times deep winter is tiring; the lack of brightness makes eyelids droop. But, creep by slow creep, days are lengthening.

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From an upstairs north-facing window, on one day of fierce winds, I paused. Aha! Light: swimming across Lonemore in a tiger-stripe band of yellow against the wind-burned brown moor. Clouds were rushing in, bumping into one another and piling up, skyscraper-high. Sunlight broke through and poured lemon juice over Meall Imireach’s last remaining icing-white snows. Flash by stepping flash brightness flickered here and simmered there, and in a few minutes of watching, was chased away, again and again, by peach and lavender bands of cloud. There seemed to be the promise of warmth in one, ice in the other. But light is returning.

In the low light of midwinter it can be hard to see colour in the landscape. Before the stormy days last week the sea surface rippled gently like a Victorian ball gown. Among my tubes of paint I found one called ‘Davy’s Gray’, a greenish-grey with a mysterious name, perfect for a bolt of satin. The internet told me it is made from powdered slate, created for an artist who lived three centuries ago. There were other greys: ‘Cadet grey’ for the uniforms of the Confederate Army; the ‘Cinereous Grey’ of rock ash; ‘Battleship Grey’ to rustproof ships of war. I found (and loved) ‘Marengo Grey’, named for Napoleon’s famous war horse and the colour of wet asphalt, and I thought again about the long road of deep winter still to come.

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But this morning there was light on the hills in little glisters so blinding they made me blink and squint, and more blue in the curls of grey. I baked a cake the colour of rich bitter chocolate like deep bog peat and I remembered how, hand in hand with my mother, I would go out in the dark to see the moon. Years later, I did the same with my first born, singing a nursery rhyme about a man named Aiken Drum who lived on it, and then again and again with all four little ones.

There is no orange murk from street lights here, only small lights twinkling now and again from scattered croft houses. Walk away from the yellow warmth at my open door and to the croft fields and I am confronted at first by a solid wall of blackness. But a midwinter night has light threaded through it; it is never wholly pitch-dark. Even when stars are invisible behind a blanket of cloud water glows in spectral green. The sea is smeared with gentle bioflourescence as if phytoplankton, angler fish with their strange lamps, eels and glowing jellyfish have swum up from the deeps not knowing where the ocean ended and the sky began. And the Abhain Dearg becomes a mother-of-pearl ribbon-river decorating the deep dark velvet of winter whose nap is lustrous and heavy.

Now light comes earlier each morning and is washed away a few minutes later at day’s end. I can walk about torch-less at 4.30pm. Even on dreich days filled with smudges of rain and banks of sea mist, when sunlight cannot penetrate the thick, dense rolling pillows of greyness there is an earthly glow around us. The gleam of light is most profound and intense at the coast and comes from every bit of sand, rock, sea-weed, lichen, tree bark, waving grass and water. This earth-based light is rich and eye-watering and more than makes up for lack of yellow sunlight.

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Animals and birds reflect it too. Rock pipits hopping on the rocky shore or ringed plovers paddling and running up and down the sands are brighter somehow with flickers and flashes of feathers that seem more like war-paint. The old Shetland ponies look bright-eyed, their shaggy manes and tails appear groomed even when they are snagged with gorse or grass; white sheep seem newly bathed and doused in talcum powder, black sheep are buffed and shining with boot polish. Even the hooded crows, swooping slowly as they hunt appear dressed in fine dun Harris tweed waistcoats and capes of black twill. And dog, roaming the sands, glows like polished jet.

In the high mountains snow has come and gone several times in recent weeks. The peaks are grim and grey for now; their lower slopes glower in burnt umber and pale ochre where wind-burned heather and stunted clumps of tough grass wait for spring. Mountain hares, brightly white, must be struggling to hide from raptors on the snowless slopes and deer roam down among the crofts foraging and stripping bark from trees wherever they can. The Red River has over-topped its banks three times in as many weeks in rushing, sediment-filled foaming outbursts but there are fish in there: every so often in the darkening at day’s end a flicker of silver in the cola-coloured water betrays them.

And then there are the fish bones left by otter at the gatepost. My new neighbour has no problems poaching river trout or with the dark.

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Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, otters, river, sea, snow, storm, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments