Wild meetings and mirages

A heron-grey early dawn. Through my open window wet scented air slipped in. It smelled wonderful. After days of heat that has bleached bog mosses and sucked moisture from soil, the rain was very welcome. Scents slicked over my tongue like wine.

Overnight, low rolling clouds shed diffuse mist rather than heavy rain and predicted thunderstorms were vague beyond mountaintops. Our Red River is prone to flooding especially when downpours follow on from drought. Water levels can rise by more than two metres when burns and river meet to drain the hills; flood-waters often spill out across our fields before cascading down the narrow bottleneck that is the waterfall to the sea. Though when I check I can see no evidence of flood debris across the lower meadows.

But after fourteen hours of rain fields and machair have begun to surge with growth. At last, orchids are sending up flower spikes and there is such a promise of blooming colours threading though green turf that I make a note to myself to return later with a Flora and my lists from last year. On the horizon, compressed by bands of silver and pewter cloud, a narrow band of pale forget-me-not blue sky streaked with lemon light promises fair weather later.

Before the arrival of rain the whole week had been hot. Days ended in opaque sunsets filled with vibrant hues yet smudged and smeared with growing humidity and the promise of change. Colours bled into each other so that the evening skies seemed blurred like rainbows.

Mid-afternoon heat has been fierce, the air clotted with moisture. The fields have flickered with zephyrs and glinting steam. Across our valley competing cuckoos, subtly different in tone and musical note, have sung brightly though not in unison, resulting in joyful choruses of Andean pan pipes. And sky larks have filled the spaces above my head with garlands of continuous trilling.  Nearby bogland has shimmered strangely with motorway-tarmac heat-haze and wavering mirages: mounds of Sphagnum moss became desert dunes, peat cuttings were railway embankments, tufts of grasses ballroom dancers. But as I could hear curlews calling and breathe in incense of bog-myrtle, the mirages vaporised.

On the day before the predicted deluge, when forecasts had warned of flood risks, I pathered along the riverbank looking down at the shining crimson and vermillion stones as they were being washed by the shallow water. Shimmering, they were transformed into the scales of a snake curling through meadow grasses. As I walked, slowly because it was so hot, my mind emptied. Here the scent of dry, red earth was strong, even overwhelming the myrtle. A few metres from the eastern corner of the field I stopped and looked up. There, by the fence on the same narrow trail, stood a stag; he was staring directly at me. I wondered how long he had watched my slow, stuttering approach. I had been completely unaware of him. Dog was running around the field behind me chasing a scent. He too had not seen the stag so I guessed the beautiful creature must have been still and vigilant for many minutes. I continued to step forwards, very slowly, all the time holding his gaze. When I was a few metres away I stopped again.

Deer don’t normally come down onto the crofts in late spring and summer, and especially not during the warmest times of day; they tend to come raiding in the cool of late evening, during the night or before dawn. So I was surprised to see the stag and his unusual behaviour and calm demeanour. For some time neither of us moved, our eyes locked. I wondered what he was thinking or feeling. I was downwind of him so he probably could not smell my sun cream or sweat. I have often heard their eyes described as ‘limpid pools’ but in those minutes I thought they looked like polished stones. Years ago, in New Guinea, I was given two stone axe heads. One had been dug up from a swamp by an archaeologist I worked with and was more than 12,000 years old; the other was newly made ready to be fitted into a wooden handle. Both were created from obsidian, each with resonating streaks of deep red and green. They were highly polished and lustrous and shone with life; they were a precious gift, given by ‘Stone Age’ people who had great skill and craft. The axe heads seemed to be imbued with the power of volcanoes and tribal ritual, and on that hot afternoon in our field I felt the same essence of life and power in the eyes of the stag.

Since coming to live here I have had several encounters with creatures whose lives mostly pass beyond reach, hidden from view, although we know they are there in the wilderness. I have been most affected by meetings with larger animals though I am no less interested in or excited by the smallest. But true encounters when some sort of exchange takes place, where the wild creature has needed immense strength and courage to make a gesture of recognition (a stare, a pace forward, a swoop over my head), and knowing instinctively that humans can mean danger, are exhilarating and life affirming, and deeply intimate. They remind me, weak modern human that I am, of the remote and implacable wilds.

The following morning we were late to the shore. It was very warm again. Skye and sea and sky were cobalt blue and radiant yet I could not see the Outer Hebrides. There was a salted heaviness in the air. In the calm slick waters a hundred or more seabirds floated; they were picking casually at tiny debris refloated by high tide and ignored us as we walked past.

On the beach we met with lovely people we have slowly come to know, learning a little more of their lives with each visit. We watched as their small dog, Corrie, swam gamely after her red ball. Other new friends arrived, making the most of the delicious warm balm of morning with their dog, Diggery. He seemed to prefer stones and he danced about in the red sands barking at them. Dog was torn between ball and stones, between Corrie and Diggery.

The human conversation was happy and carefree, just like the day. We stood by the otter-watch beach-seat and I laughed and told tales of dark winter storms when no voices can be heard above the shrieking winds and it is hard to stand up straight. But we all enjoyed the softness of the scented air and the mutual unspoken acknowledgement that we have, in that space, a shared peace that nothing can disturb.

I returned to the same spot yesterday evening. Dog and me had the beach to ourselves apart from clans of dunlin and sanderlings, two curlews and a pair of ringed plovers. The light was pearlescent and opaque.

The beach sands were dimpled and puckered by the passage of many feet and decorated with scraps of crisping seaweeds, shells and small stones. They still held the remnants of yesterday’s meetings and doggy-diggings. Among the divots, and criss-crossing over our human footprints, were deer and otter tracks. At some point they must have passed by this corner of the beach and perhaps as they paused to take in the sea view, they had caught remnant scents of humans and dogs, and had hurried on.

Sitting with Dog at my feet I watched the plovers run back and forth, their orange legs blurring, their voices gently piping, adding their delicate footprints to the jumble of others. They did not seem alarmed by our presence at all. As the sun continued to sink the sands began to turn from ash blonde to ochre and dun, the colours of a lioness. One of the plovers paused, and for fleeting moment caught my eye just as the stag had done, before disappearing between two large stones at the back of the beach just a few feet away from us.

Then I spotted, secreted safely in a sandy hollow, three newly hatched chicks, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of having been allowed inside their space.

In a week when grief and horror came calling, meeting the stag reminded me of many things: the wonders of the natural world, New Guinea, wilderness, wild creatures, and how we interact with them. And now these tiny new lives filled me with renewed hope and joy; here they were, surviving on a small beach that for a short while had been busy with visitors, dogs and activity, while we for the most part did not know we had come so close to the wild.

Overhead the sky began to fill with rainbow-colours; a waxing crescent moon sparkled and the ringed plovers called out in farewell as Dog and I headed for home.

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Swallows, ghosts and purple rain

Our run of sassy, warm and sunny May weather ended in a flurry of sharp showers and midge mists. With the addition of moisture after weeks of dryness everywhere is sappy, buzzing and busy, especially in the croft fields. Even the surrounding hills that are bare of trees are greening now.

Winds, blowing hard over the last few days, brought rolls of bright blue, white and pearl-grey clouds across the Minch. Trundling on through the mountains they thickened, becoming violet and ink-blue bands that stained peaks and slopes darkly purple.

At the coast we missed the very heaviest downpours. Yet dry ground has been wetted enough to encourage plant growth. Once or twice I was certain the fine rain didn’t actually reach the fields but was swept up with the breezes, spritzing my face as it sluiced by.

Even with the showers daylight has been so fiercely bright that I have still needed sun glasses and sun-cream. From the garden one afternoon I could see white horses galloping through a field of aqua and a glinting Trotternish edged in silver and, feeling the pull of the sea, I set off for the shore. The Inner Sound glowed, resembling a cathedral stained-glass window with light pouring through; somehow it seemed to be lit from within and not by the sun.

There were people and dogs on our sandy beach, holiday-makers as well as locals, enticed by the sunny warmth and bouncing waves. Dog was puzzled, we usually have this place to ourselves, but we walked our grassy, downhill path anyway and headed for the shore. Salt and moisture filled the lower atmosphere adding to the silver dazzle. Scouring gusts of wind by the water’s edge were loud and exhilarating; it was like being prickled with millions of tiny silver needles. I felt grounded and in tune with the pulse and rhythm of the waves, the heat of the sun and the cold buffeting wind. Yet even with my feet firmly on the sand came a sensation of sky-diving through silver and gold. The waves were brightly turquoise or they shimmered opaquely like moonstone; all were topped with crests of royal icing. Dog danced in and out of the sea and I wanted to go in too.

Aware of others coming onto the beach I retraced my steps. Some of the sand was so smooth it looked as though had been skimmed by a skilled plasterer. There were rippling pools, sand on one edge, cobbles and stones on the other. Voluptuous wave forms were everywhere: in the sea, rocks, sands, shells, seaweeds and clouds, and even the storm-gifted branches I have added to our log seat. There is so much of the feminine in the natural world.

I turned away from the glinting water and went up to the log to sit and watch. Dog lay down in the warm sand. A family walked slowly along; a small child, parents and another adult with a walking stick, a grandparent perhaps. A choke caught in my throat. Memories came flooding in, washing up and down in waves. This little scene could have been a replay of one of my own holidays with our youngsters, my parents in tow; such happy days, so fleeting and so very, very bright. I watched as the small child tottered back and forth picking up shells, seaweed and handfuls of sand. There is a picture of me somewhere with my own mother doing exactly the same thing on a beach a long time ago. I could lay it out next to photographs of our children and grandchildren, and with others of my grandparents, sepia children themselves, and trace in them all the instinctive intergenerational love of the sea and shore on bright, wild and windy days.

In the evening, I headed once more down the track, drawn to the sea by still ghosting memories stirred up during the afternoon. The brightness had sailed into the west, sunset was not far away. Dog raced ahead. The tide was high and the sun was sinking quickly. At the shore I stopped to listen to dunlins. Their cluster calls were loud and in unison; they sounded like the distant roar of a football crowd heard several street blocks from a stadium. The birds were scavenging mounds of titian and orange seaweed dried and shrivelled by sunlight. They saw us and lifted up in teams. I tried to count them and failed, thinking there were three or four groups, each of twenty birds, but they swooped back and forth so quickly that I couldn’t really tell. At the edge of the machair I sat down on a boulder still warm from the day’s heat, dog beside me. The birds soon returned to the largest mounds of kelp closest to us. We were as still as we could be. The seaweeds glowed in the last rays of sunlight. Other birds joined the dunlins: sanderlings, ringed plovers, a few turnstones, rock pipits and wagtails, and the air was still and quiet for a few moments as they all picked at the debris.

Behind me stonechats piped and rattled from fence posts. Then the gusting winds seemed to sift swallows out of the air and they tumbled and spilled across the slopes and along the shore. Despite the heat and flame in the sky the air was cold. As I stood up and turned for home, birds scattered in a piping rush. I walked back upslope; the grassy turf path, though well used, was thick and lush. As my feet trampled and knocked the grasses and sedges tiny twisting clouds rose up like miniature dust devils in a desert. Lace wings, moths and other insects, disturbed by my passage, were visible in the low angled evening light, their wings glimmering. Swallows began to dive even lower and swoop past me at knee height, feasting, and in the last embers of sunlight they turned blood red. The whole narrow trail was a crimson artery filled with coursing life.

For a few moments I felt part of the swimming stream of nature and, family photographs in mind, had the sudden sense I was walking home with ghosts as well as with swallows.

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Cuckoo blues

Our high-sky, Mediterranean-bright spell of dry weather has ended in a shimmer of pearly light and cool lavender breezes. The last few days have blown change in at our windows and doors and brought silver mists and gentle dampness woven through with cuckoo calls. After the dryness it has been refreshing. The ground is parched in places and there have been wildfires in some parts of the Highlands. Moisture is welcome but so far there has too little to make a difference to the fields.

For a few days dawn vapours rose into clouds and melded with sea waters though still the rain did not come. Now the winds have swung slowly and gently back to the west lifting once smooth waves into slow-rolling creases and crests and sending a salty tang to mingle with the incense of bog myrtle and gently showering . Clouds have fractured the bright May sunshine, clear skies have become burnished with silver, the piercing sun an alabaster light.

On the bog by the croft ‘hummocks’ and ‘lawns’ of Sphagnum moss have been bleached by desiccating sunlight though some patches have retained wetness and colour where their surfaces are protected by overhangs of heather. Now and again, from mist-full boggy hollows, grassy tussocks and clumps of heather, flies, moths and butterflies have risen in small clouds, flickering. And in the woodlands where trees are sprouting quickly and greenly, moisture, retained by hairy lichens and thick leaf mould, has made under-canopy spaces feel dense and heady.

In early May mistiness the dawn chorus seems louder than ever. As with light, perhaps sounds bounce from droplet to droplet magnifying voices. One bird has begun to out-sing even larks and song thrushes: the calm, smoothly measured two-note-calls of cuckoos spear through the frenetic hullabaloo of other voices and darting flight. Yet even they are chased, mobbed by feisty gangs of meadow pipits and other small birds. I watched as one cuckoo, sitting on a telegraph wire, was repeatedly ‘bombed’ by small birds trying to drive him from his perch; he simply shrugged his wings. Cuckoos will be here in our valley for a few weeks, ignoring the sea and higher hills and mountains in favour of crofts, gardens, patches of woodland, hedges and bogland.

I, however, cannot ignore the sea’s daily call and yesterday morning walked as usual over the fields towards the shore. The horizon had vanished and I watched the slow swirl of soundless currents sliding into mists. For a few minutes I felt suspended, as if in between worlds, with no gravity to keep me anchored. My face was cooled by moisture caught on eyelashes and cheeks, and tiny droplets clung, sparkling, to my cotton shirt.  Then dog nudged my hand and we walked onwards, down the path to the beach.

On the sands ringed plovers ran back and forth following the waves as they sloshed in and out. Beyond them I watched three white darts crying raucously as they tumbled down to the sea and up again. Terns, I think, though they had not a stitch of black anywhere. Their wings were long, thin and sharp, as finely crafted as paper birds made by a master of Japanese origami. Further out to sea gannets were diving, powerful and streamlined like Concorde. Then I realised that another pair of birds were skimming over the low waves, one following the other then, curving over the rocky shore at one end of the beach, returned along the sands and out across the sea. They seemed to billow and twist around each other, ribbon dancing and weaving about an invisible maypole, repeating their short route again and again. I wondered if this was a courtship flight; it lasted for fifteen minutes or more and I wondered how they would have any energy left to mate.

Standing on the rocks was a lone turnstone, still in his winter coat, his head turning as he too watched the other birds. Then a whimbrel landed, and another; they called out their gentle melody and calmly settled wing feathers. They were hurried on by a noisily piping group of oystercatchers: brrrrrrrrreepapeepapeepapeepeepeep they sang, their red eyes, red legs and red beaks fierce against the blue sea and rusty rocks.

The water was forget-me-not blue and turquoise. Waves were sand-filled at their breaking edges and as they sluiced away lacy trails of salts and fine sediments formed in the water. Each wave left behind its own distinctive, rippling mark in the sands, rimmed with shell fragments. Because the tide was going out some of the waves grew tall but did not break; they merely collapsed in a pale and milky swash. As they rolled up and curled over they seemed to gather in birdsong with each great shush. I heard a distant cuckoo then, and felt certain a wave had scooped up its paired notes, perhaps as a gift for a selkie.

I returned to the cliff-top again in the evening. Sea and sky were blended together in blue silk and pale grey satin. The horizon slipped away just as it had earlier in the day but kept returning with smudges and smears of indigo islands.

I could see the Trotternish as a broad band of Prussian-blue painted on canvas. Water currents were moving gently left to right, south to north; the sea was a spill of oil paints mixing slowly, swirled about by an invisible brush.

Once again I heard a far-off cuckoo call and thought of their blue and pewter plumage shimmering like the sea. The moonstone and quicksilver waters whispered in reply: a selkie’s song of longing and desire.

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A yellow, song-filled May Day

The sunset sky of May Day Eve was a riot of unflinching, billowing gold and crimson. It promised heat and flames but when the night came it was cool and solid like grey marble.

May 1st 04.30: sunrise is an hour away and I look out of the window. Through a pale and spectral mist comes a voice so loud and strong it shreds the pre-dawn air. Silver tatters float away carrying musical notes across the garden in the direction of the river. A song thrush is playing his medley of tunes. Though still befuddled from sleep I am sure I can detect at least a dozen ditties making up the whole. He clearly prefers some tunelets to others and uses them more frequently. I can see that he is cleverly perched atop a telegraph wire from where he can project his beautiful music across the whole valley.

His voice is rising and falling in time with the pulsing river below us and with the now gently rising breeze. Curving hills are beginning to bloom into view as the pale-grey fogs thin into pearly translucence. Hints of other colours appear and familiar shapes, Baosbheinn, Beinn Alligin and Tom na Gruigach, sail along the eastern sky. A landscape that was formless when the singing began now has hints of solidity.

This is a mostly treeless place; there are patches of woodland and scrub but the forests are a few miles away. Listening to the melodies I wonder if the song thrush is trilling about spring, lust and life or whether his deepest instincts, tucked into his gene coding, are to sing of trees and rich, worm-filled soils.

For half an hour or more he sings alone, though now and again I hear the faint and distant echo from another thrush. Beyond the mountains a pale lemony light is seeping into our quicksilver world. And then others rouse themselves; within a minute or two many voices have joined the song thrush and a great swelling chorus of ringing sound fills up the garden and spreads out quickly across the fields.

The choirs herald the first beams of rich butter-yellow sunlight; it is sunrise, 05.30, May 1st, “latha buidhe Bealltainn” (the yellow day of Beltane).

Stepping outside I see it is a yellow day. Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are in flower at the ditch margins, mustardy and luminous; gorse flowers are shrugging with almond essence; creamy willow catkins are fully open and bee stippled; and dandelions are unfurling on the high, dry banks above the river.

And I wonder if there will be faeries dancing around the well-springs (we have three on the croft) or whether any Beltane bonfires will be lit this evening.




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Swallow-filled scents and a hidden beach

Warm light has spread across us like butter melting on toast. A week ago winter splashed about and shrugged snow over the hills and now just a few white patches remain on the high peaks. As the ground warms here by the sea, green needles of grass are pushing up through dun-brown tussocks. Although the surrounding moorland is still a patchwork quilt of burnt sienna and pale grey, the lowland bog is blooming with orange-tipped myrtle and bright crimson and emerald cushions of moss.

Cold north winds were replaced at first by a few days of calm. It is unusual for this place to be windless; the atmosphere is so salt filled and ruffled by tides that we rarely have a completely still day or night. But for a short while the air was silver droplet-filled and everything was coated in diamond-white microscopic beads of moisture. Land, sea and sky were shapeless, horizons vanished. I felt as though we were living not on the land’s hard rock edges but high among clouds held aloft by feathers. Now the pallid silver world has gone, shooed away by brisking spring breezes that have pulled scudding clouds and blue skies from the south.

Yesterday we walked to a hidden beach. A mile or so along our single track road it is possible to cut diagonally across pathless cliff-top moorland and head to the sea. From the road there is no hint that secret beaches hug the feet of these roaming cliffs; eyes are usually drawn beyond precipitous edges to the shadowy ridges of Skye and distant billows of Hebridean islands. But hidden treasures, made of bright pale sands, bouldered storm beaches and turquoise waters, are as much a part of this rugged coast as the sliding rock avalanches and steeply plunging cliffs.

We scrambled carefully down the steepest slopes nosing through thigh-high heather and stretching across small waterfalls that splashed cheerily over huge steps of sandstone. Below us the pale creamy beach sands glowed in the sunshine. Safely at sea level we could see the shore rocks were shape-shifters, colour-changers and life-givers. Though they looked small and grey from the cliff tops many were huge and rugged, taller than me and metres wide; others were smoothed into roundedness though still so big that to get to the strands we had to step nimbly from one giant oval to another. At each end of the bay solid rock ramparts were gnarled, lichen covered and stippled with rosettes of thrift. Below these outcrops were wave-cut platforms, also solid but worn into ripples and curves by thousands of years of grinding and polishing by waters filled with pebbles, grits and shells.

The rocks all along this coast are mostly Torridonian sandstones but like every other Wester Ross beach this place has boulders and shingles of other rock types, including gneiss and quartzite, ‘erratics’ from the mountains left by retreating ice sheets and glaciers millennia ago.

Together, the back beach, comprised of solid cliff and wave-cut benches with giant’s cannonballs, looked mysterious and colourful. The frontal sands were pale and fine and full of shell fragments. At low tide limpets, barnacles, mussels and winkles on the surface of inter-tidal rocks glimmered in the afternoon sun; some were clasped tightly together in rock crevices, shielded from the drying wind and light and from predators. And rock pools bustled with multi-coloured life as bright as any tropical reef.

In the ultra-low tidal conditions seaweeds were waving their frilled flags above the sea’s surface waters. As sunlight breached roaming clouds it struck these titian banners so they glinted, and kelp fields were transformed again and again into sparkling constellations.

We sat for some time, casting our eyes about for otters and sea birds and watching sunlight playing on the water. As I looked at my clothes I saw they were splattered with rust-red mud and stippled with salt and sand; I combed my hair with my fingers and pulled out tufts of grass, wondering if they had got there during my untidy scramble down the cliff.

I have always liked this feeling of stepping into the wilds and inside un-manicured, un-managed spaces, becoming more connected to the living world with each step. Most days I long for it and deliberately seek this strange sensation of ‘otherness’, though even here I don’t always find it.

Today the winds have turned and waft heartily from the east. They are warm and merry and catch at grasses, tufted heathers and myrtles on the bog next to our croft. Although I can feel the wind tugging at me as it blows from right to left and although I know individual clumps are bending harmoniously with each gust, the overall effect is of ripples moving biliously in the opposite direction, left to right. While it confuses me, the motion releases insects into the air as they are brushed from sheltering leaves, and birds flash back and forth chasing food.

Ambling along the path that leads to our (less wild and not so secret) shore I see whoops of swallows matching the waves of wind: they are feeding furiously and chattering loudly. I stand to watch and can feel bubbles of joy welling up inside me. Then I spot another migrant: a sand martin, then two more. I try to capture them on my camera but do not have the technical skill. Dog sighs; from where we stand he can see the beach and he wants to play. We are surrounded by my neighbour’s sheep. I laugh as I realise that dog and ewes are all looking up at the movement in the air: gravity-defying swallow-swoops of iridescent jet and clotted cream, with hints of flashing turquoise and scraps of cinnamon, tumbling again and again over woolly backs, dog and me.

The birdsong is vibrant and joyous: I can hear curlews among the rampant voices of skylarks and gleeful chitterings of the swallows. Then I catch a glimpse of a pale grey raptor. In the bright light I cannot tell what species of bird it is because its undulating flight path is heading directly into the morning sun. For a few minutes the birdsong across the bogland is discordant, but it soon settles.

At the very edge of my senses I think I see coloured song-ribbons waving in the breezes. Atoms of air are binding with musical notes and as the day begins to warm they are bound together tighter and tighter by molecules of fragrance. The aromatic incense of Myrica gale (bog myrtle) is rising and roaming through and into everything.

But I must carry on to the beach; dog has his ball and is impatient for his game. So I breathe in deeply and turn to the sea.

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Water colours

I have a beautiful book: cloth-covered and filled with photographs and a few heartfelt words. It is ‘Brighter Later’ by Brian David Stevens. His images are of the sea and are presented in pairs. In most of them there is no land to be seen save a pale smear of beach, though some have birds and a few are streaked by groynes. Each square photograph, taken with great skill and care, has a twin; not an identical brother or sister but one that is ever so slightly and lightly different in its perspective. They remind me of my student days peering through stereoscopic lenses at paired black and white photographs. Those ‘practical’, pre-satellite geography lessons showed how, through the miracle of photography coupled with polished glass, two-dimensional flat images could be transformed into a strangely satisfying 3-D rolling landscape.

Somehow Stevens’ pictures, taken over the course of a year from around the UK coast, have given me a similar stereoscopic unsettling (you can find his work here: http://briandavidstevens.com/albums/pFVx2/brighter-later) . His captured views look out at the sea and sky, something I do myself every day. They are unusual because there are no seaside towns, piers or people; rather, they are crammed with clouds and water, waves and mists. Their altered perspectives persuade the viewer to retrieve memories of looking out to sea; it is almost possible to feel the salty air and hear the swash of water. And they remind us of what we do more often than not when visiting the coast: we gaze outwards to horizons, to watch the waters, assess weather conditions and, maybe for a short time, simply pause.

I live close to the gentle waters of the Inner Sound and the turbulences of the Minches. The sea is my daily companion and at the top of a small cliff close to our croft I pause and attempt to judge sea state and cloud types, and the likelihood of rain. And, wind strength permitting, if I can stand, I’ll take a photograph.

I started recording cloud and sea colours because I wanted to paint. I had been introduced to the works of American painter Jon Schueler who stayed for a while at Mallaig. He lived and worked in small cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat, a vibrant stretch of water that runs between the Morar coast and Isle of Skye. His paintings were mostly of sea and sky, often horizon-less, yet filled with rich colours, and I became fascinated by what and how he was seeing these landless places. He, like Stevens, always looked outwards, away from land and at times his paintings are unsettling for their lack of grounding, of earth. He wrote at length about the lure of the sea and how, in trying to understand light and colour, became certain only ocean and atmosphere could teach him. His output was prodigious. And so, with Schueler’s paintings in mind, I tried to catch the elusive colours of sea and sky in watercolour and acrylics. Inexperience with paint prompted photography; if I took a photograph, I reasoned, I would at least be able to reproduce the colours I was seeing.

When I received ‘Brighter Later’ as a Christmas gift I was enchanted and remembered then my Schueler-sea-sky-pictures, taken from the same cliff-top spot.

Here are just a few. They are undoctored; colours, tone and texture are as captured by my old camera. They are cup-filled with water in almost all near-oceanic and atmospheric states: liquid and aerosol, mist, cloud, wave, slick sea surface and mysterious haar. There is stillness and motion, calm and quiet fury; there are horizons and yet in some, no discernible edges at all. They are paint-filled with vibrancy and colour: blue, green, grey, purple, pink, orange, yellow, silver, magenta and even near-black.

I am emboldened and will try brush on canvas again.

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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! ”



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