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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Longest Season


One of Billy Connolly’s ‘weel-kent’ comments is that Scotland has two seasons: June and winter.

My version is that, here in Lochranza at any rate, autumn, like winter, takes up more than its allotted portion of the year. It is also the loveliest of the seasons in my opinion. When our late spring arrives the speed of the greening up of the trees - alder, rowan, hawthorn, willow, hazel, birch and ash (always the last for its leaves to open)- is remarkable. Autumn, on the other hand, is like a slow sunset in which the glowing colours of the land gradually brighten and deepen. Whilst summery weather can be elusive and winter slow to leave, autumn is the grand finale of the year. 

By the end of July, the bracken on the lower hillsides, which shoots up higher than our heads during June, begins to turn golden and chestnut at the edges. It slowly collapses, curls and crumples into itself, making walking off the path easier again. Shining scarlet clusters of berries dangle from the rowan trees after which Lochranza is named. As the sunset retreats southwards towards Catacol, dusk closes in surprisingly fast and the click and clash of antlers echoes round the glen. The necks of the red deer stags have thickened with bearing the weight of their coronets of deadly sharp points. They strut around regally, gathering admiring audiences. Meanwhile the golden eagles fly high, unobserved but no doubt observing everything. 

In November, the sun leaves Lochranza until February, its low daily journey taking it behind Lochranza’s high hills. Most people in the village know the exact dates when the sun will leave and return to their homes. Throughout the winter it can appear briefly in the bealachs (cols) between hills, and on bright days you can watch the shifting boundary of light and shade on the higher hillsides. It’s essential to dress up warm if you’re working outside in midwinter in the chilly damp and shade of the deep valley.

In March light evenings lengthen rapidly. Freak weather can take us by surprise: we have known blizzards, floods and heatwaves in early spring. By April delicate pale yellow primroses are scattered on the cliffs of the old raised beaches, turning their faces to the sky, but it is usually well into May before spring proper arrives accompanied by a symphony of birdsong. This year I tried to record the spring wildflowers that I noticed on my daily walk in Glen Chalmadale and was surprised how they changed week by week, with wood anemones and violets quickly superseded by bluebells and yellow flag iris, in turn bowing out to pinky-purple foxgloves, the exotic rhododendron ponticum and frothy creamy may blossom. It can seem that the change from winter to summer takes little more than a month. 

In midsummer the sun in the late evening suffuses the head of the glen with rosy gold light and defines the cracks on the craggy face of Torr Nead an Eoin. Turn right round and you can watch the sun descend slowly and finally disappear behind the silhouette of the Kintyre hills. For weeks the nights never get darker than a soft grey twilight.

Now, in late September, the red squirrels are busy as bees darting between trees and rustling amongst leaves as they amass their winter hoards. Starry nights have returned and when it’s a clear sky I make sure I go outside before bed to watch the slow silent circling of Cassiopiea, the Plough and the Northern Cross. One night white billowing clouds illuminated by a nearly full moon galloped across the sky on the back of a south-west wind. Yet it appeared that the stars were rushing like a twinkling river in the opposite direction and it was clouds that were stationary. On such nights, the mountains cradle the quiet of night like a church, the only sound the hushed music of water splashing its way to the sea.