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.