The season’s changing – the weather is distinctly autumnal. According to the BBC, autumn will be late this year – I beg to differ. This year summer never really got started in Skye and I think we’ve missed that particular window. The dark is deep enough now for the stars to be visible again and Venus is shining brightly once more in the eastern night sky – as the planet that’s first up and last to bed, it’s both the evening and morning ‘star’. There have been berries on the rowan trees in the garden for several weeks now – much earlier than normal.
And of course school’s now back. There’s also a severe weather warning in place for the Hebrides this evening and overnight. All ferry sailings are cancelled as a force eight blows out in the Minches and gusts of up to 70mph are expected. The wind is roaring down the chimneys and the rain is battering at the windows. The lights are flickering and I hope the power stays on – at least long enough for me to finish this post. We expect this sort of weather in the winter – but in August??
For me the start of a new school year always emphasises that summer’s over. As a teacher my life is marked out in school terms – so I’m always very aware of the passing of the year and it’s seasons. August is my New Year – more so than January. It’s been a hectic first week back – lots of meetings and planning and preparation. I’ve made my new year resolutions to stay on top of the paper work and not to get stressed – we’ll see.
It’s been good to catch up with colleagues and exchange holiday stories. It’s also been great to see the children again. They all seem to have grown and are pleased to be on the next rung of the primary school ladder. The children in the Primary One class have settled in already and are so sparky and enthusiastic – real bright wee buttons. At the other end of the school, the new Primary Sevens are very pleased and proud to be the top dogs and they all appear just that bit more mature than they did in June. And it seems strange without our ‘graduated’ – last years Primary Sevens who’re now at high school. There’s a real buzz and energy about the place as my 33rd – OMG! – year in teaching gets underway.
Every class has a new teacher – so there’s a lot of ‘getting to know you’ stuff going on. As a learning support teacher, I work with children from Primary One to Primary Seven in both the English and Gaelic streams of the school – so I have a good overview of the pupils and am called on as the ‘continuity’ person as teachers and new classes get acquainted. we also have a new curriculum to get acquainted with – Scotland now has a ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ – I don’t know what that means we had before – and it remains to be seen just how excellent this new one is. Our schools are facing a lot of changes so it’s probably fitting that the new year begins with a whirlwind…
Last Saturday, after almost three weeks of mist and showers, the thick layer of grey cloud that had been pressing grimly down on the Hebrides, cleared away and the sun shone on the north of Skye.
We – that is me, the husband and our house guests for the past week, the daughter and her boyfriend – grabbed boots, waterproofs, walking poles and backpacks and headed out on a hike. Waternish Point was our destination. Having parked the car opposite the ruined church at Trumpan, we set off.
It’s an eight mile, circular route to the lighthouse and the deserted settlement of Unish on the northern tip of Skye’s Waternish peninsula. We’ve done the walk several times before and it’s always delightful. This time was no exception.
As we set off along the rough cart track, I already felt better. I think I’d begun to suffer from an out-of-season bout of S.A.D. during our mostly dismal July. I guess the full spectrum light went straight to my sun-starved pineal gland. The sky was an almost cloudless blue and the sea air was invigorating.
The walk goes over heather moorland and peat bog. Because of all the recent rain, the going was very wet in places but our walking boots and waterproof trousers did their jobs. There was a fair bit of scrambling and jumping to be done to avoid the deeper puddles and the squelchier areas of muddy bog. But that all adds to the fun.
The view westwards to the Outer Hebrides, as always, made us stop and stare. Over a glinting, sparkling sea crouched the island of North Uist. As we watched, a small, white-sailed boat made good progress in the strong breeze. The Cal-Mac ferry also appeared round the headland on its regular and frequent route from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on Uist. And looking north there was Harris – its purple mountains and white sandy beaches seemed very close on this bright, clear day. I thought again how we really must make the effort and go and visit the Western Isles. We can see them from our living-room window but have never ventured over.
We continued on our way. We crossed a shoogly, makeshift bridge over the fast- flowing burn – its water peaty brown.
The moor was covered in purple heather, and thistles bordered the path. Yes – living Scottish clichés.
There were plenty other, less emblematic, wildflowers on show as well. Red clover, purple knapweed, wispy white cotton grass, buttercups, daisies, rosebay willowherb, white meadowsweet and angelica – all bloomed in colonies, clumps, singly and in swathes – depending on their preferences.
I heard curlews calling, probably from their nests out on the moor, but didn’t actually spot any of these shy birds. I did see a little wheatear sitting on a rock beside the path – it flew off as soon as I approached – and shag circled and called overhead all along the walk.
We passed below two cairns –monuments to John and Roderick Macleod, a father and son, who both died in a clan battle with the Macdonalds in 1530. We also pass the ruins of two hilltop Iron Age (about 200BC) brochs – or ‘duns’ to use the Gaelic name – Dun Borrafiach and Dun Gearymore. Duns were stubby, cone-shaped, circular buildings. They were fortified dwellings, built using the dry stone technique – a technique still in widespread use. They would have had staircases leading to different levels and would have provided shelter to both animals and humans. The clear and open view from both duns would have meant it would have been very difficult to take the residents by surprise.
I paused, as I always do below the these ancient homes, trying to imagine the lives of the Picts – these pre-Scots – who’d have lived, loved, raised children and died here. The physical landscape would be the same, apart from the cart track. They’d have grown root vegetables and raised cattle, sheep and pigs much like modern Highland crofters. Yes, life was probably more’ nasty, brutish and short’ than now, but I guess their daily pre-occupations were similar to our own. Standing by the remains of their homes never fails to inspire images of the ancestors who gathered and piled the stones and worked the land. Pictish genes are probably present in many present-day Scots and standing on the same land, looking at the same sea and mountains, hearing the same birdsongs has the effect of telescoping the intervening time between us and them. And last Saturday, as I stood where they’d have stood, differences of pace and technology fell away and it was the similarities that remained.
After the duns, the track bends slightly eastwards and we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse. Sighting the lighthouse spurred us on just as we were all flagging. We picked up the pace and strode on. We passed a rabbit warren on the left of the track and paused to watch several of the residents scampering about.
Soon we turned left and headed west once more, following the sheep track down towards the former crofting township of Unish. Only one house remains – roofless, granite-grey and stark against the landscape. The other houses and byres are reduced to a single layer of stone marking out their boundaries. The former residents were burned out and driven off their land during that most infamous period in Scottish history, the Highland Clearances. From the 1840s to the 1870s, landlords oversaw these enforced removals in order to replace poor, low yield, peasant farmers with much more profitable sheep. Their former tenants were forced to emigrate. Even on the brightest day, the atmosphere around Unish is eerie and haunting. I got a completely different feeling standing in this rubble from what I’d experienced further back at the duns. This time there was no connection – just a sense of sadness and dislocation.
We climbed up a small hill above Unish and sat in sight of Waternish’s rather short and stubby lighthouse. We had a welcome snack – kitkats and water, took photos of each other as trophies of our hiking achievement and then just sat for a while, a part of this ancient and timeless landscape.
We returned, simultaneously footsore and exhilarated to the car park at the church where our walk had begun. I spent some moments in the ruined church before getting into the car. The story goes that Trumpan church was burned down by members of the clan Macdonald, in 1580, while their enemies the Macleods worshipped inside. So this is another place of ghosts. I sat on the old lichened wooden bench and reflected for a bit on how hundreds of years later we still allow carnage to take place, justified by our tribal concerns, jealousies, beliefs and mutual mistrust – only the size of the stage has changed. I think reconnecting with the landscape makes a person see how pointless a lot of the conflict was and is.
Doing the walk again and sitting in the churchyard was a bit weird for me at times, as the two main characters in my new novel – the work in progress – take this same walk and talk about displacement and dislocation, two of the novel’s main themes. I half expected to meet the pair of them. Writing fiction can mess with your head!
And then we were home. Boots kicked off by hot, grateful feet, chilled beers and slices of cake (baked earlier by the daughter) swiftly downed.
Daughter and I cooked dinner together – something we both enjoy doing whenever she’s home. We made a creamy, beef stroganoff. Daughter’s boyfriend had not yet experienced this culinary family favourite, and this would be a further initiation into Stormont customs for him. He quickly cleared his plate – approval enough – relief all round. This was an end-of-holiday meal for the two young people. Their week with us passed too quickly. Heck the daughter’s whole childhood passed too quickly. They’d be returning to their lives in the city the next morning. I was missing them already – and that breath of fresh air our children bring to us.
Saturday was a lovely day and one when I was aware of the landscape – internal and external – and more than usually aware of the passage of time.
Part two was all about the sounds I heard while spending the day in the garden – but what of the sights?
It’s amazing what you miss when you’re ‘busy’. Weeding, digging, planting, pruning are all rewarding activities if you’re into gardening, and you do get a pleasing result for your efforts. But how often do any of us take the time to really look at what we’ve created and to raise our eyes beyond the fence to what lies beyond?
This is what I saw when I stopped and stared…
The garden is terraced – three levels in all. The top two levels are buttressed by beautiful, dry-stone walls built with sandstone reclaimed from the original croft buildings. The lowest level can’t be seen from the house and it’s at the lowest level that you will find the pond – an amazing, little, bio-diverse ecosystem.
Every spring the pond is a romantic rendezvous for zillions of toads and frogs. The massive bonkathon which takes place over several days is sound-tracked by the loud chorus of bullfrogs singing to their lady-loves. Afterwards these amorous amphibians disappear as suddenly as they came (so to speak) peace returns – only the trickle of the waterfall from the filter pump to be heard – and the pond is filled with spawn a foot deep. A few weeks later baby frogs and toads emerge and disappear just as their parents did – to where, I don’t know.
The pond is one of my favourite areas of the garden – but I hadn’t been down there for weeks. You see I was in mourning. All our fish –about fifteen, gorgeous, fat, golden and blue orfe – which have thrived on our neglect for years, had died. Seen off either by the extremes of last winter, despite the husband making air holes in the two-feet thick ice that persisted for weeks – or, when Spring eventually came, taken by the heron which lurked at the pond’s edge for hours, days on end, biding his time till one of them swam into view. By June I was sure they were gone – sure that if they’d emerged from their winter stasis at the bottom of the pond, as they’ve done every other year, they’d ended up in the heron’s belly.
However, as I was on a mission to take in everything in the garden, I braced my self and descended the steps to the pond’s edge. waterlilies spread out across the surface – plump and indolent, red-hot pokers stood to attention on the bank at the far end, pond-skaters skimmed the surface of the water – and then I saw it – a flash of orange, then another and another, followed by the darting of two creamy-coloured shapes. Just by the lily pads – five fish! Three golden and two ‘blue’ (a misnomer as they are in reality cream) orfe.
I did a little jig of celebration, punching the air, and shouting ‘yes!’ What survivors these little fish are – well some of them at least. Seeing them was at least as exciting as seeing a pod of about fifteen of common dolphins swim up the loch two days earlier – but that’s a tale for another post…
All the time that I was outside, I was aware of two sorts of fluttering on the periphery of my vision. Butterflies – Small Whites (also known as Cabbage Whites, I think) bobbed and weaved through the plants and, overhead, swallows swooped and soared constantly.
A little field mouse chancing her luck also darted into vision a few times – scrambling out from between the stones of the rockery wall to grab some bird seed from the slab of rock that serves as a bird table.
A colourful line of washing clapped in the stiff breeze – it would be dry within a couple of hours of being hung out. I know I’m probably a bit sad for feeling this – but I get a deep sense of satisfaction when surveying a washing line of clean laundry.
And, out on the loch, ferries heading to and from the Outer Hebrides made regular appearances while several fishing boats trawled for mackerel and shellfish. As it was a clear day the mountains on the island of Harris were easily visible when I looked north – dark purple against the blue sky and to the south the triangular peak of Ben Tianavaig was the distant focal point.
Overhead the sky was gentian blue and cloudless, the blue marked only by high vapour trails.
But just as it was the birds who provided the predominant sounds for my day outdoors, it was also the garden birds who were the predominant sight. True the plants came a close second in all their attention- grabbing glory but the birds were just so entertaining – as well as being in their glorious full HD colours. At one stage I counted fifteen different species all present at once. The most numerous were the chaffinches but there were also plenty greenfinches, siskins, blue tits, great tits, starlings, sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds and, the perpetually airborne, swallows and swifts. However, it was the appearance of a single robin that really made me smile. These little birds with their optimistic and heartwarming song are dear to many. We usually have a couple of breeding pairs in our hedges, but, while they’re raising their young, these always rather solitary creatures become even more withdrawn from bird society , so it was pleasing to see the return of at least one of their number.
Whole families appeared – parents and fat fledglings – the latter still flapping urgently, beaks agape, demanding to be fed – in spite of being larger than their mums and dads. At one point two parent sparrows and their four young lined up on the front wall – the parents flitted back and forth to the seed feeders and painstakingly filled their lazy youngsters bellies.
From my garden I’ve seen golden eagles, sea eagles, sparrowhawks, peregrines and I’ve even had a hen harrier sitting on the lawn –and awesome though those magnificent birds are, it’s their little garden cousins who really do my heart good.
By three o’clock in the afternoon, cloud began building – the northerly breeze replaced by the stronger and prevailing south-westerly. There was rain in the air by four. So it was time to gather in the washing and retreat indoors.
That night before going to bed I looked out at the garden and loch. Both were bathed in the light of the big, bright yellow moon that peeped from between the fast-moving clouds. I realised the nights have got darker in the last couple of weeks – only a month ago it was still light at bedtime. I felt a slight pang that summer – like life – speeds past so quickly but I also felt glad to have been blessed with the time to stand and stare at my corner of our beautiful, precious world.
If you want to see a full-screen slideshow of the photos (plus extras) in these last three posts click on this link to FlickrA day in the garden July 2010
Ah, the peaceful country life – not! Birdsong provided the backing track to my observations but there’s was lots more to be heard besides. There was the half-bark, half-cough of the ewes calling to their lambs and to each other. There was the deep bellow of a Highland (the large, ginger-haired, horned variety of cow native to these parts) heifer chastising her calves for playing a bit too roughly. This year’s little calf was winding up his brother, born last year. Junior was actually head-butting his sibling. Given that big bro’ weighs twice as much as the little one and has the beginnings of some pretty impressive headgear, I could see why mama cow was getting agitated.
I heard one animal noise I’m not familiar with – an intermittent sound –a cross between a snort and a throat-clearing. It came from next door. I peered over the fence. It was the new arrivals – two llamas. They seemed to graze for a wee while and then pause to snort to each other before resuming their chewing. As they stood tail to tail they reminded me of the push-me-pull-you in Doctor Doolittle. They’re a curious blend of camel and sheep – weird!
The sound of intermittent squabbling between next door’s ducks and geese persisted for most of the day. There are ongoing skirmishes between the two species over water access – yesterday was no different. The geese harangued with their distinctive honking call and the ducks muttered and quacked back – in a literal flap. Also from next door came the cry of the resident peacock calling to his lady – it’s an almost eerie sound, a call full of longing – almost like human crying. I find it quite endearing.
At the bottom of the garden just over the fence, hens clucked and scrabbled in the field – tutting as they dodged cattle hooves and sheep kicks to get at grubs and seeds in the long tussocky grass. And the rooster followed his harem around, strutting like Mick Jagger in best ‘Brown Sugar’ mode, and crowing enthusiastically whenever the fancy took him.
A gannet kept watch on us all from the chimney-top, squawking out his complaints about goodness knows what. Every now and again he was buzzed by the ever-circling carrion crows and cacophonous, winged fisticuffs would ensue. I’m rather fond of crows – they are so intelligent – not the least bit bird-brained. We mainly get two varieties round here – the carrion and the hooded. The hooded lads are mostly peaceful, mind-their-own- business kinda guys – but the carrion crew are loud bully boys. I’ve seen them harry a sea eagle – apparently it’s not uncommon for them to work as a group to see off raptors who might pose a threat to their young.
As well as the chirruping of the small birds and a blackbird singing exquisitely from his perch in one of the rowan trees, the other backing track was a deep and loud hum – bees – many bees. The garden is edged all round with fuchsia which the bees adore. The hedges were full of bees as were the blue hydrangeas, the purple buddleias, the pink daisies, the mauve geraniums, the lilac hebe – yes okay – all the flowering plants. The drone was unpunctuated and I did take some time to track one of their number – what a work ethic as he systematically worked over one yellow potentilla bush.
I couldn’t see the horses on the croft to the south of ours as the rosa rugosa bushes that grow against the drystane dyke that forms the boundary are too tall to see over at this time of year. But I could hear them snuffle and whinny – two grumpy old men having a blether.
But all this noise wasn’t troublesome to me as I forayed through the garden. It wasn’t intrusive. I was able to think – to let my mind play and toy with all sorts of thoughts and notions, observations and reflections – as I perched, crouched, squinted and scrutinised the plants and creatures all around me.
So when the two low-flying fighter jets materialised – with no approaching sound – roaring up the loch, below the level of the mountain ridge on the loch’s eastern flank, when that ultra-fast, earbusting, engine roar suddenly silenced every living creature on the ground, I thought I was having a cardiac episode of the terminal variety. What a fright! At the southern end of the loch they climbed and banked before turning to head back down the water and out into the Minch.
Mother Nature was momentarily silenced by Man’s fighting machines – that definitely gave me pause for thought. But soon the squabbles, skirmishes and social calling and the serious business of feeding had resumed and I got back to my safari.
The weather! They say us Brits are obsessed with it, but I was never so aware of it as I am on Skye. Unsettled, volatile and downright weird (not me, the weather) – it’s also an area of micro-climates so districts a few miles apart can experience completely different weather.
‘Eilean a Cheo’ is one of the island’s Gaelic names and it means ‘misty isle’. It’s a name the island often lives up to. Because of this, some short-stay visitors don’t get to see the mountains which dominate much of the landscape.
However, it could equally be called ‘rainy isle’, ‘windy isle’ or ‘sunny isle’ and all of these adjectives can apply within an hour – never mind a day. And whatever the weather, Skye is never less than stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful.
But on a sunny, blue sky day with enough of a breeze to keep the dreaded West Highland midge at home in bed, there can be few places on Earth to rival its ‘stop you in your tracks and make you gasp’ abilities.
Yesterday was such a day. The second in a row. The husband was away on a motor-biking trip, I was on holiday from work so I headed out of the house and into the garden.
Now, normally, spending time in the garden for me means weeding, pruning, chopping – gardening of the ‘stopping the garden invading the house or becoming like Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year forest’ variety – with a little bit of creativity occasionally thrown in. But not yesterday – yesterday I just wanted to be outdoors – not labouring in the garden or going for a walk – but just being.
I didn’t want to sit passively in a chair and just gawp either. I wanted to be an active observer – to really see, hear, smell and feel (I drew the line at taste) life in the garden and on the croft and to do a bit of stopping and staring at the wider landscape that I normally take for granted.
Llamas, tits (blue and great, of the feathered variety) and big hairy cows are just some of the things I observed.
My next couple of posts will tell you more of what I found there…
I decided it was time for a revamp of the blog as I want to broaden its appeal.
I hope you like the new look. I’ve updated the ‘about me’ page as well.
I’ll still be posting about how my writing’s going but I’ll be posting about lots of other things too.
I live on the Inner Hebridean island of Skye – which is off the north-west coast of Scotland – and I want to record what life is like living in such a beautiful place. And along the way I’ll look beyond my island home and reflect on’life, death and the whole damn thing…