From her croft in the Scottish Highlands, Annie Worsley looks back on a year of topsy-turvy, turn-around weather.
In the run up to Christmas we are usually flailed and flustered by powerful nor’westerlies. Storms roll in from the Atlantic, one nameless big windy beast after another. Each time they arrive the small curved bay closest to my home becomes a cup to catch the sea. Gales drive the waves; waves pound the shore. Olive and peppermint surges collapse into turquoise and ice-white foam. They gather up the sands then sluice backwards in a pile of orange froth. The little cup-bay almost bursts at the seams with colour and light, noise and motion.
The sound of a rough sea all gale-driven into frenzy is deafening, but I love it. Even from my home, a mile away as the hooded crow flies, I can hear winds and waves at play. From the back door, a storm-sea sometimes sounds like a jet engine revving up for take-off.
For the most part, the Met Office does not name our storms because population density is low but we name them anyway. And count them! Moreover, Wester Ross and the wider region of Highlands and Islands is jam packed with folklore associated with catastrophic storms and the responses of both people and landscape.
Weather types and patterns here are defined by our proximity to oceanic forces and mountain landscapes; by and large they are predictable, carried here by air masses flowing chiefly from the Atlantic or the Arctic. Usually, our ‘local’ climate is one of turmoil and tumult wrapped around short periods of blissful calm when we pause to take a deep breath, all of us – people, wildlife, land.
But 2023 has been a year of unexpected extremes, of topsy-turvy, turn-around weather. The timings of wildlife comings and goings have been awry, driven to some degree by continental scale shiftings in atmospheric conditions. We have endured prolonged periods of snow, intense ice and frost, saturating rains and floods, enormous thundery squalls, divine blue calm and heat, and most worrying of all, unexpected ‘ultra’ drying.
Late winter was filled with violent storms. Great squalls lifted high overhead. Snow-melt and torrential rains filled the burns. They ran downslope in frothy spate, appearing in unusual places along the cliff edges, and repeatedly re-sculpted the beach. On the croft the Red River spilled out over the meadows again and again. With every step the ground squelched and leaked black water. Then in March deep snow covered everything. It piled into ripples and waves across the fields, sculpted into a snow-sea in the calm, biting cold. Even when the snows finally fizzled away, those early spring days were frozen hard and so bright, I needed sunglasses. The freezing was also a drying event. Somehow, even on surrounding hills and peat bogs, everything shrivelled and desiccated. The land was freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped and packed tightly like produce.
Yet life finds a way. Just as winter lingered, gorse bloomed in scented yellow and cacophonies of birdsong pierced the cold. Sunlight played through the iced air with promises of warmth and eventually, summer found us.
From the end of May right through until mid-August, we enjoyed our first truly long spell of Mediterranean heat, a summer of deep ultramarine and azure skies and seas of mirrored glass. A ‘normal’ summer would amount to a few days of fine weather, not weeks running into months. High summer was so high it felt like being inside a mirage. The beach shimmered and shone; distant islands vanished into mother-of-pearl haze.
Our children came to stay, each with their young family. The house buzzed with little ones. We swam, dug sandcastles, picnicked, and collected shells. With all of them, parents and children, I shifted from mother to grandmother, helping to dry wet bodies, sort clothes, extricate children from rock pools, settle disputes over sandcastles, pass out the sandwiches, sweet treats and drinks, smear on the sun cream. In June we went to our little beach every day. The grandchildren could not be persuaded to do anything else. I took lots of photographs of happy faces, memories for future years, images of joy in the almost-heaven that is this small place.
It is strange how time warps and folds. I remember being daughter and granddaughter in the same way and recall another far-away holiday beach we said was ‘ours’. A long-ago place of sand, shells and wildlife. I learned about coastal nature with knees blooded by sharp rocks, hands stiff from trying to hold on tightly to my bucket and little fishing net. There is a picture of me with my grandmother, both of us bending over to inspect a crab. And there are photographs of me with my husband years later in the chaos and joy of other summers, picnic spread on a blanket, the happy faces of our own children. My parents are there too, holding towels and flasks and all kinds of clutter.
This year, at the summer solstice, I sat on the sands of Opinan and fell into the past. At the northern end of the bay is a low cliff. From one part of the beach, it appears to have a bulbous protrusion. I have seen it, looked at, photographed it almost every day since we came to live here, and the memory has never surfaced before. But watching my grandchildren digging in the sand, the strangest feeling wrapped itself around my body, the sensation of having once been there in the dim and distant past.
Later, I rummaged through old photographs. And there it was. A picture of my parents sitting on Opinan’s beach surrounded by beach gear – a pile of towels, tennis rackets, flask and picnic basket, a discarded sun hat. In the background, the familiar silhouette of the little cliff and its rocky nose. The caption in my mother’s handwriting on the back of the photo read ‘Summer solstice’. How had I forgotten that day? For the entire decade we have lived here, I had not once remembered that visit to Opinan. Only when I was sitting in the very same place, doing the very same thing had my mind and body remembered. Through the strange synchronicity of Midsummer’s Day, history was repeating itself. Grandmother, mother, daughter – I am in this place, in all these roles – my past, present and future entwined and interlinked.
If I think about the passing years from mother to daughter, great-grandmother to great-grandchildren, about the changes we have collectively witnessed and the changes ahead, I wonder if the little bay of Opinan this summer may yet be a pivot for us all. I hope these happy summer days will give the children strength to face an increasingly volatile world. I hope even the smallest grandchild might retain some fragment of happiness in the scents, light and colours. Collective memories to hold on to in the years to come.
The glorious summer of 2023 hid a darker side. I think of it now as the ‘Great Drying’. Around us, the peatbogs and moorlands suffered as days of dry weather extended. This is normally a saturated place. Wellies are needed for a walk across the boglands between South Erradale and the mountains. But this year, the peatlands crisped and shrank. Sphagnum moss mounds shrivelled and bleached. Grasses fragmented into dusty shards and the leaves of Myrica gale curled and browned. Bog pools vanished while sandy ‘beaches’ appeared around inland lochs.
Is this strange year the first of many? I cannot say. Looking at the photographs taken decades apart, it would be impossible to tell whether their sunny beach weather was unusual and had similar dryings. But concern over a future I will not see but my grandchildren will live through makes this summer, our shared memory-making and photographic records much more poignant.
Normal service was eventually resumed. Through September and October, Atlantic lows swept in bringing rain and gales, high tumults of cloud and wild seas. The boglands were re-wetted, lochs and rivers recharged. Red River Croft became saturated again, the Erradale burst its banks and spilled black water across the fields. But now, in the run up to the winter solstice, we are freeze-dried once again. The land dazzles as if decorated for Christmas.
2023 has been a year of see-sawing and extreme wetting and drying. But as frost crystals grow along with the hours of darkness, we take comfort knowing the light will return soon.
Annie Worsley is the author of ‘Windswept: Life, Nature and Deep Time in the Scottish Highlands’, published earlier this year by William Collins, and much loved by all at Caught by the River. Buy a copy here (£16.14). Read an extract here / Kirsteen Bell’s review here.