Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The balance has tipped

We celebrated the equinox on Sunday night with a ceremonial fire in the woods, crouched next to a ruin out of the wildest blasts of wind. As the full moon struggled to shoulder its way through the cloud-crowd, the bonfire roared 'enough' to winter.

This morning, I strolled towards the gate thinking how mild and calm it was and noticed the sound of kissing - lots of rapid squeaky little pecky kisses - and something like purring. Up in the highest branches of a rowan tree perched two long-tailed tits, like furry lollypops - balls of fluff on long stick-tails. One made a show of a twig in its beak, then fluttered off, nestwards. The other followed.

Love is in the air.

Friday, 18 March 2011

It's spring

It's now, officially, spring on Braighlinne. The first flower to open is a primrose, as always. And as always it is under the slowest trees to come into leaf, aspens, down close to the shore of Loch Roe in the cove we call Kelvin Grove, because of the Kelvin engine from a long abandoned fishing boat which squats there, below the high tide mark.

Some legendary boat, nesting

behind this old shore dyke,

sheltered by this aspen grove,

left behind, like a golden egg,

this Kelvin engine, rusting.

As if they have seen the primroses too, blackbirds have begun to sing their glorious improvisatory songs. Late in the afternoon, I stand transfixed by a high-wire performance: the bird sits in beak-lifted sillhouette, its back to the sunset, facing the moon in the eastern sky, and pours out one witty trickle of tune after another. Its tone is to a flute as primrose yellow is to gold. I wonder if its dowdy partner, hiding in the birches, is as impressed by its song as I am?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Earth Wondering

Since about November 2008 I've developed a habit of writing a daily 'wondering'. These are short bits of text, usually about something on the croft, if I'm here, or the natural world elsewhere, if I'm not. Some of the wonderings are variants on the theme of 'wow, look at that, isn't that incredible/great/beautiful/splendid/perplexing'. Many are questions, blurts about something that makes me scratch my head and furrow my brows, or mysteries I wish I understood.

For example, here's one of the former variety, from Summer: 'A cormorant surfaces with a fish in its beak, and the mirror-calm loch rolls into a spiral of ripples, widening until the water is a huge vinyl disc, ready to play cormorant waltzes. A tern dips like the diamond-tipped needle – let the music begin.'

From winter, one of the questioning ones: 'A woodcock, invisible until almost trodden on, batters away through a thicket of hazel. How does it not smash into the trees?'

I scratch them down in a notebook, and gradually the pages have mounted up. Last year I took a selection of wonderings I wanted to share, organised them into four sets, one for each season, and created four booklets illustrated with some of Bill Ritchie's wonderful close-up photographs. I gave them as gifts to a few people, who seemed to enjoy them. They are handmade, printed on 100% recycled paper and bound with string.

Now they're for sale, on my website, for £5.50 each or £19.50 for the set. Or you can get them for rather less than that direct from me.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


It is not spring. Not yet. The lack of primroses and the hail and snow force this conclusion, not to mention cold nose, cold fingers, cold toes.

At the weekend, we moved down to the shore of Loch Roe, but we've been forced to admit we were premature, and now we're back in the woods again.

Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while, or who have read 'Wildlife on Braighlinne' in the wonderful Wilder Vein anthology, will know that my partner Bill and I life a nomadic life within the 11 hectares of our home. It's a kind of transhumance, similar in spirit to that of herders, hunter-gatherers and other peoples who still live close to nature. We spend the winter in a cabin in the woods, sheltered from the worst storms. In spring we move down to our little caravan on the shore of the sea loch. In summer, when the midgies make cooking inside a steamy caravan unpleasant we take to cooking and eating in another caravan up on the breezy heights of the croft, then wend our way back down to the shore to sleep. In autumn we revert to our spring quarters, until the path down the crag to the shore becomes too icy to navigate by torchlight as the nights draw in, when we retreat to the woods.

The seasons don't obey calendars. Spring on Braighlinne is defined by the opening of the first primrose. Summer comes with the first midgies, or the arrival of the terns from Antartica, whichever come first. When the terns leave, that's autumn. And winter announces itself by the first hard frost.

So what were we doing heading for the shore before the first primrose, you may well ask. Bill had one of those significant birthdays, and his chosen venue was the shore. Over the past 10 years, five of his birthdays have been after the first primrose, and five before. This year, once again, his birthday came early.

Last night we were back in the cosy cabin, fire glowing in the stove, a warming lentil stew on, and snow on the ground outside. It's the seasonal equivalent of having got up, thought better of it and snuggled back into bed for another snooze.

Wake me when the primroses are open.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The language of the land

This landscape is written all over in Gaelic. Every stream, slope and hollow is named in the language, and many of those names are rich descriptions, with hints about the trees that grew here, the animals that frequented the spot or the uses that people made of the land. Some of these are still pertinent: our croft Braighlinne, the slope above the pool, will always be aptly named, and Baddidarach still has lots of oak trees. But the wolves have gone from Gleannan a' Mhadaidh, and Creag Dharaich was devoid of trees until oaks were planted as part of a reforestation project in the 1990s.

Yet the names can guide us in how to restore the land to ecological health, they can inspire us about what the landscape might be like for future generations and they can help us to connect to this place as a lived-in ecosystem, one with cultural as well as natural heritage. The tragedy is that not only have the woods and wildlife been decimated over past generations, so too the very language that spoke about them has been almost completely lost.

I am proud to be part of a movement to try to prevent the total collapse of the Gaelic language here in Assynt, and thanks to the Ulpan teaching system, I'm one of a group of people determined to help bring about its revival. In December I took part in a teacher-training programme that means we now have three fully trained tutors in the parish, and another one just north in Scourie. My part was to be a 'guinea-pig student' for the tutors to practice on, and I learned more Gaelic in the process than I have by struggling with self-study for I don't know how long. There were eleven of us and seven of us are now continuing with twice-weekly Gaelic language classes. Ulpan is a brilliant system, and I'll write more about it here in future. For now, you can read my piece about it in the Bratach, here.

Another crucial part of sustaining Gaelic is all the associated culture. The language is fuel, but the heat and light are what matter: stories, songs and poetry; tunes, dances and games. The Feis and Mod movements are keeping these alive, and it was inspiring to see the tiny village of Scourie run their first Feis last month.

In Assynt, the song tradition has remained strong and many people were taught songs by family members who did not otherwise speak Gaelic to them. One of these is James Graham, who has become one of the country's most lauded Gaelic singers, and who put years of study into becoming a fluent Gaelic speaker. There's an interview I did with him a while back on the Northings website. He is now one of our trained Gaelic tutors and an excellent teacher, when his job with the Mod doesn't take him away from us. For the wider cause, I suppose I should be glad that someone with his talents is involved in the Mod, but we'd rather we had him here, helping to get Gaelic back onto our lips.

Why am I, an incomer, bothered about Gaelic? As well as wanting to understand the names on the maps, it's the poetry. All the song lyrics and all the poems of this place, prior to Norman MacCaig's visiting eye, were in Gaelic. Just across and down the Minch, people are still writing in Gaelic. I want to be able to read it in the original, not with all the music and nuance washed out of it in translation. I live in the woods, and the trees here formed the original alphabet, called Ogham, when the Gaelic language was first written down. There's a depth of association with this place that I am sure can only be best expressed in Gaelic.

In my mission to deepen my connection to the nature of this land, I can but try to speak its native tongue.