invitation

sepals spread
   petals parted
      stigmatic lip curling over
             stickily
      in wait

close-up of pale creamy petalled iris covered in large clear beads of rain

Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh, Scotland
5th June 2024

Beinn Dearg

It was a long walk in to the mountain, the red mountain so-called, though the stone was mostly weathered a silvery grey. Dark shadowed cliffs loomed up beside me as I wound my way up the glen, a bonny brown burn running beneath them, rushing over boulders and dropping off ledges in frothy white streams. At the foot of the steepest cliff, cradled in a corrie, lay a shallow lochan, its floor half-covered in soft weed which shone a gentle green in the sunlight.

I walked on, zigzagging up to the bealach below the summit, veering off the path halfway up to investigate a huge white stripe in the hillside – a hefty vein of quartz. There had been lumps and flakes of quartz dotting the path, and chunks and slim veins embedded in occasional boulders – not an unfamiliar sight in the north-west – but this was a whole slab of quartz, a huge shelf of it. Big chunks lay broken loose beneath it, their edges razor-sharp as if freshly splintered. Indeed the whole mass of it looked newly formed, brittle and bright and clean. Although its texture was slightly to the touch, it was shiny, like congealed snow when the layer of ice on its surface gives it a glassy glaze.

I looked up at the cliffs beneath the summit ridge, close now. Another short stripe of quartz cut high up across them and on the grassy slopes slung above lay a couple of swathes of snow. Eager for coolness on this hot day, I scrambled upwards, following the improbable stone wall which climbed from a lochan on the bealach straight up the side of the hill almost to the summit before turning neatly to the right to run above the cliffs. As I ascended, the mountain reddened, the grey rock underfoot giving way to a peachy-orange tint where the stones had been disturbed or the ground worn by footfall. I understood its name now but it was the whiteness which most compelled me and after resting at the summit cairn, I headed back to the wall, clambering over a gap to take a handful and mouthful of snow.

Refreshed, I continued alongside the wall. Well-weathered and evidently old, it was in remarkably good shape, six foot high in stretches and running for several miles with only occasional collapsed sections. I marvelled at it as I followed its seemingly endless length down the westward spine of the mountain: a single skin construction of large heavy slabs stacked mostly vertically; huge slabs, although they wouldn’t have had to carry them far given the boulderfield the wall ran through. I held onto the wall frequently for physical and moral support as I picked my down the horizontal maze of prone stone until finally it ended at a rusted iron fence post, and I scrambled and slid down the steep heathery slopes to join the path again.

Covered in sweat and mud and presumably ticks, as I looked for a place to cross the burn, I came upon a little scooped pool where the water settled before tipping over a smooth lip. Sheltered from almost every angle, I stripped off and slipped in, letting the water lap over me, cooling and soothing my heated, scratched skin as the evening sun slid slowly down the sky.

I watched the white froth of the water entering the pool and felt with my foot the small vein of quartz that flowed through the pool’s floor, and I thought of the snow, cold on my tongue. What height, what whiteness! And yet it was when ambling back down the path and re-entering the forestry plantation at the foot of the glen that I was most utterly enthralled.

To my right, amid the tall conifers, was a walled enclosure. Small ruined buildings edged its southern side but the wall itself was mostly intact and held a small field almost entirely carpeted in bluebells. I walked in and stood in a small grassy clearing in the centre. The sun was leaving and in the cool shadow, the colour seemed to hover, scented, in the air.

I stood there for some time, a contentment settling upon me, and such a sense of peace; of deep blue peace. I could have stood there forever. All the glories of the day gathered there in the evening light, in the frilly blue haze, punctuated here and there with small patches of white. I wondered what this other flower was but on looking closer discovered it was bluebells, clutches of pure white bluebells, the tender curls of their living flesh breathing in the field with me, the softest and finest of all the day’s treasures.

close-up of vertically stacked stone wall with the pale blue sky shining through its gaps

Beinn Dearg, Loch Broom, Wester Ross, Scotland
15th May 2024

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