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

the birds

The loch is full of birds; multitudes of them; wheeling, diving, scattering, settling. They’re here for the whitebait which are filling the head of the loch this autumn. I don’t know why this autumn and not others but it’s high tide just now and the bay is brimful.

They’re mainly gulls: herring gulls, black-backed gulls, black-headed gulls (in their unhooded winter plumage), common gulls and kittiwakes – gulls of all ages and sizes. A good number of cormorants and shags are here too, snaking in among them. A few razorbills and guillemots hang around at the edges of the melée, and the occasional resident heron stands watch on the shore. The seals are getting in on the action too, poking their noses up here and there and sliding smoothly in and out of the mouth of the River Inver. A gannet wings its way in from the river mouth heading seaward.

The scene is ever-changing. For long spells, the birds sit around calmly, their pale bodies studding the loch’s dark grey surface in a distributed array which at times spans almost the width of the harbour. Then, when the shoals come in, they fly up and swoop down, crowding the water densely, the larger gulls especially, in a great mass of mottled wings. A colony is the usual collective noun for gulls but there’s no systematic colonising here. This is a clamouring of gulls, a noisy mass rising and falling, flocking and dispersing, floating and flyting, and feeding, feeding, feeding. Some of the gulls pluck the sprats from the surface of the water but most dive right in, the kittiwakes plunging with a noisy plop while the cormorants and shags slip neatly beneath with an elegant arching dive.

It’s quite a commotion and one I’ve never seen before, despite living on the loch itself for several years (aboard a boat in the harbour). When I ask around, however, I discover I’m not the only one. No-one’s seen this many birds on the loch for decades and we’re all captivated. Every time I’m in the village, I see someone standing by the shore, gazing out, transfixed: locals, tourists, delivery men, we’re all under the spell. I’m told social media is all a-flutter too, with photos and videos, sightings and observations. For me, it’s not just the sight but the sound which is compelling. When the feeding frenzy starts, the racket is immense: raucous, glaucous; an ear-rattling krilling and clacking, flapping and splashing. As it subsides, the cacophony simplifies, spreading out into distinct calls and cackles which punctuate the air, clarifying its dimensions.

I love watching all the birds, singly and in quantity, but it’s the kittiwakes which fascinate me the most. They congregate at the mouth of the River Inver, drifting about daintily then suddenly dropping into the water and emerging with a slim silver quickly-swallowed fish. They’re the most beautiful of gulls, to my eyes, and it’s a rare privilege to see them in flight so close to shore. The last time I saw kittiwakes was a few years ago when sailing with my partner off the coast of Norway. It was a cool evening in early June and we’d been out in a lumpy sea all day. I was cold and queasy and was lying around listlessly in the cockpit when four small white birds appeared around the top of the mast. They stayed with the boat for about quarter of an hour (though it felt like longer), beating up into the wind then gliding down our lee side, then holding steady, almost hovering, beside us. I didn’t recognise them then – the dark beak and eye, the black trim on the tail and the dark V on the upper side of each wing – but in my sea-weary state, they seemed like a visitation, the maritime equivalent of being called on by doves.

It was only later, on consulting my bird book, that I realised they were young kittiwakes. There are many of these here too, as well as the adults with their black ink-dipped wingtips, and all with that beguiling dark eye. In among all these kittiwakes though is another gull, dark-eyed too yet more petite and self-possessed – almost demure. I follow it with my binoculars for a while. Like the kittiwakes, it has a white head and body, pale grey wings, and a pure white fanned tail. However, its wings are more rounded and flappy, reminding me a little of a peewit, and underneath are a dark tapering grey. This dark underwing is unusually beautiful, particularly as the wings are bordered in white, making the bird appear translucent at its edges, as if it’s not fully of this world. Indeed, in the graceful lift of its flight, it seems almost holy.

There’s certainly something profoundly appealing about it. Yet it’s not just the kittiwakes and this little gull which are precious, it’s all the birds, the whole assemblage of them, and the way they have come to us now, unbidden. To me, returning from a difficult time away, they’re a welcome surprise, yet as I listen to people speak about them it seems that we all feel the same way: that this coming of the birds is a blessing, a benediction. After everything we’ve been through, with lockdowns and illness, extortionate inflation and a damp squib of a summer, we find ourselves surrounded by these clouds of white feathers, drifting and banking and at times filling the sky; as if – for a moment – we’re living inside a lightly shaken snow globe.

29th November 2022
Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland

a froth of flowers

myriad tiny four-pointed flowerheads of hedge bedstraw

    a froth of flowers
        a floral foam
            an inland shore, of sorts
    – a home

Hedge bedstraw, Cwm Garw, Glamorgan, South Wales
17th June 2021