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