sundial

The sun touches on one mountain, then another, their glowing faces like a sundial indicating the sun’s unseen path around the Earth. It reminds me of the nights I spent on the island of Værøy in northern Norway one summer, watching the sun move across the upper edges of the mountains arrayed to the north. In that case, the moving light marked the hidden passage of the sun across the northern sky. Today, down at 58° north on a hill at the back of Lochinver, the sun is about to rise in the south-east.

I keep watch.

First the south-facing flank of Sàil Gharbh on Quinag lights up, to the north-east. Then, further north, the snow-scarred heap of Ben Stack. Just beyond, the sides of some of Foinaven’s spurs begin to shine, the whole undulating wave of the mountain beautifully, completely, covered in snow. Next, it’s a tiny scrap of cloud clinging to the back of the long ridge of Canisp, to the south-east.

As with the midnight peaks of Værøy, the sun gives the rock a warm red-orange hue, like glowing embers, yet it’s a haphazard sundial here, the strange angles of the land and the long distances between the mountains meaning illumination isn’t always coming where I expect it. Now, on the rough moorland between here and Quinag, a small scooped rise is picked out in gleaming russet, everything around it remaining in frosted brown shadow. Then, to the south-west , on the Coigach peninsula, that wee knobbly hill at Achnahaird suddenly brightens.

I look westward. Across the Minch, the Long Island is reddening, its foreshores rosy below snowy peaks. The long line of clumpy cumulus clouds which sits above the island, skimming the high tops, shines softly, and above those, a half-moon hangs chalk-white in the pale blue sky. Between the clouds and the moon, the sky, which was deep pink, is turning a limey yellow.

Back on the mainland, the upper edges of the moorland in the north-west are beginning to glow. The horizon in the south-east is a pale dense yellow, the huge bulk of Suilven standing blue in its centre, its tall humped head a sentinel, a watchtower. To the right of it, the angular silhouette of Cul Mor is backlit. A cold wind blows out from them, rising with the light.

I keep watch.

The sunlight on the north-western moorland inches infinitely closer. I can see the headlights of a car over there at the viewpoint, now in sunlight. I can also, through my binoculars, see a few ships illuminated out at sea, their bright white floodlights, like the car headlights, seeming puny and fake in the slowly flooding dawn. A pink-red freighter is passing on in front of the red cliffs of the Shiants, a lurid fuscia colour against the rich blue water.

And now it comes, the sun, on the high ground between Suilven and Cul Mor. It appears at first like a tiny gold star, then a curve, then a full face of nuclear radiance. I’m dazed a minute, sun-struck. The wind picks up even more so that I’m actually colder. I look around and suddenly all the colour’s gone. The clouds and the snowy mountains are all just white. The freighter, now north of the Shiants, is dull red, while the island cliffs and foreslopes are brown, as is the tussocky moorland all around me.

I pick my way back across the frosted rocks and frozen bog to the road and walk back, downhill, into shadow. The air is still again but the cold is deep and damp. The small roadside trees are so thickly coated in frost they look snow-covered. I wind my way into the woods behind the harbour. Here, the frosted twigs and branches form a latticework so dense that from a distance it looks like smoke. Occasional beech saplings hang onto their crinkled orange leaves, like mysterious clootie trees. At the edge of the woods the broom has grown so tall that it curves over my head like exotic white palm trees. It’s all very surreal. My mind almost can’t believe what it’s seeing, as if it’s frozen in suspension, chilled into stillness.

I walk back round the head of the loch, through the village. The frost growing on the grass on the wall of the playing field is so thick that the ice crystals must be at least half a centimetre long, giving the blades the appearance of being furred or feathered. I run my thumb and forefinger up their length, feeling the tiny shards fall off, cold and almost dry under my skin. I imagine I can hear them tinkling as they fall and it suddenly seems so intimate. I notice a young man walking towards me and feel almost embarrassed to have been caught in such a flagrantly sensual act. I can’t help it though and I carry on after he has passed, this miniature crystalline delicacy a compelling contrast to the solid heft of the mountains, yet all held equally fast in the strong stiff cold.

The blue silhouettes of Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beg with the sun rising like a gold star on the high horizon between them

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
3rd December 2023

orb

The sun rises beside Suilven, above the high rough line of moorland on the skyline, beyond the rhododendrons in the garden, behind the alder. It illuminates the leaf-rims and twigs in the path of its round shining which, glistening in the morning frost, appear to spiral sunward. It looks as if the sun is spinning an orb web, netting not just the trees but all the little wings, fluttering bodiless and backlit, at the feeder hanging from the alder.

The wings are so delicate, translucent almost, vanishing as soon as they appear, returning to the sun. Is this what we want? To be drawn sunward, to lean in, to dissolve in this echo of summer warmth, this bare brightness, this love.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
16th November 2023

heat

It’s like the sultry summer days when I lived in Montreal, heat so thick your skin’s running with sweat,and all your thirsts want slaking. You’re heavy with desire and you want to do something about it but the sun’s pressing in relentlessly and your will is liquefying and really all you can do is wait: wait for the humidity to build, wait for the humidity to break, and then….

First there’s the thunder – the clap, the flash, the weighted brightness – and then comes the rain. You’re standing out in it, lying out in it, feeling it patter all over your body like a thousand darting tongues; touching, tasting, quenching the heat of you, until you sigh and subside and gratefully dissolve.

Those were the days, and this is one now, although in this case the thunder is a low rumble rather than a violent crash, and the sky isn’t dense purple but medium-grey, and the rain isn’t filling the hot street with warmed flooding water: this is a Scottish summer, more temperate in all its aspects. Yet still the heat comes in, still the rain insists.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
13th June 2023

heartening

I’ve been corrupted.

Yesterday I walked up a hill, as I often do, following a burbling burn with pretty pools and falls, and up onto a rounded top covered in boulders of shattered blue-grey quartzite. Behind me the western mountains rose from the sea like petrified waves and ahead of me eastern Sutherland spread out in all its low and dappled brown glory. Everything was gleaming in the clear summer sun – the rocks, the lochs, the distant sea – but all I could see were good builders (large and squareish with clean faces), fine pins (long and slender) and some excellent (tapered and triangular) wedges.

The summit itself was covered in hefty slabs, perfect for making cheek-ends, and previous hillwalkers had used some of them to make a bench, a sound construction, far better built than the low stone wall around the trig point which looked distinctly shoogly. I secured one end of the wall with a handy wedge, sat on it and ate my lunch, then slept heavily for a while on the stone bench in the sun.

“Have you started dreaming of stones yet?,” the waller who is training me asked recently. I had. And now even my waking thoughts are stone-shaped: sometimes rough, sometimes smooth but substantial and with a satisfying heft. Even the little thoughts have their uses, like the hearting in a wall, supporting and securing those of larger dimensions. Nothing is wasted.

I think about this as the mountain carries me along, this heightened attunement to rock. It’s not only in my mind but my hands too. I can almost feel the stones that I think about: their grain and texture, their corners and edges, their linear or complex forms (the even grain of Torridonian sandstone, the sheer faces of Cambrian quartzite, the lumpy curves of Lewissian gneiss).

I’m being changed by them, and it’s disorientating, as change often is. But as I recover from the fragility of a brain injury, I sense that working with stone is good for me, that it’s therapeutic in some way. In lifting the stones, handling the stones, placing the stones, I’m being consolidated. I’m being built up. I’m being heartened.

long slender pale stone embedded in dry grass pointing towards distant blue lochs and hills

Ben Hee, Sutherland, Scotland
4th June 2023