I have just realised that our younger son’s end of term is next Thursday. How did that happen, the whole summer term going past in the blink of an eye? I don’t feel anywhere near ready for the summer holidays yet!
My chronological confusion is, I suspect, largely down to the year getting off to such a late start. It seemed to be winter for ever this year, didn’t it? The Met Office announced that Britain had its coldest spring in fifty years: Easter felt more like winter, and there were still large streaks of snow on the hills when we went up to Kintail on a sunny day at the end of May.
When the temperatures did finally begin to warm up, spring and summer came tumbling in together, two seasons of flowers in a glorious jumble: roses and apple blossom and narcissi and lilac and clematis and speedwell flowering all at once like a mille-fleures tapestry. With bluebells still thick in the woods, a late cherry even now covered in pink blossom and the rhododendrons in full bloom, it would look like May, were it not for the heaviness of the summer trees.
For midsummer is upon us, ready or not. And I must admit that, for the first time in three years, it does feel like it. The past few days have been properly summery, whether sunny and warm or sultry and overcast. In the woods, the lush green leaves hang heavily. Nettles have grown taller than the bluebells now and are rapidly taking over prominence. Beyond the gate, the cow pasture is a shimmer of golden buttercups.
And on the lochan beyond the margin of the woods, the wild swans have at last shared their close-guarded secret: three small cygnets, paddling beside their parents. Every day I glimpse them gaining in confidence on the water.
Come to think of it, I am very glad that my own pair of ducklings will soon be on holiday to enjoy it all with me.
You might enjoy Midsummer’s treasures, written when my younger son was four.
‘In Kintail nothing lacks; all things culminate. It is the epitome of the West Highland scene.’ (W.H. Murray)
It was the cuckoos I noticed first. Standing outside the door, watching the light shift over the mountains across the loch, I could hear nothing but birdsong. Cuckoos were calling a duet across the hillside. Behind me a song-thrush perched on top of the telegraph pole, pouring out rivulets of melodic whistles and trills.
Primroses buttered every bank. The air was soft, smelling of sap and grass, a hint of honeyed azalea nearby mixed with the more distant scent of fresh water and the cool herbal breath of the mountains. Despite the scattering of little houses along the loch-side, I could not see another soul: the whole glen beyond the cottage door seemed laid out just for me and the birds.
This sense of peace is what draws visitors to the West Highlands. That, and the scenery. We spent the weekend of elder son’s half term in Kintail and Lochalsh, which – for visitors heading westward – is the last bit of the mainland you drive through on the way to the bridge to the Isle of Skye, and the best bit of the drive. It has some of the most dramatic glens and, on Eilean Donan, one of the most iconic castles in Scotland.
Its mountains are legendary, with some of the best known hill walks in the country, such as the ridge walk across the Munros of the Five Sisters of Kintail. (The story goes that the five peaks were once princesses, who were turned to stone by a magician after waiting in vain for their Irish suitors to come for them across the sea. This is a part of the world where myths and fairytales grow thick as the heather underfoot.) Instead of driving through, we decided for once to forego the pleasures of Skye and to get to know this beautiful corner of Wester Ross a little better.
I am so glad we did. Despite the gradual increase in visitors, this area still has echoes of the Highlands I remember from childhood. Many old cottages have been turned into holiday homes now (the crofter who grew up in ours now lives in a static caravan along the glen); others lie derelict, given over to rowan, elder and cuckoos. New bungalows are springing up along the loch-sides.
There are plenty of crofters still making a living here, however. Sheep still wander across the village roads; ancient but serviceable little tractors still help with the donkey work. Fishermen still provide the local pubs with the freshest crab and langoustine for your lunch. The Gaelic language is part of the living culture here, as is traditional music.
And then there are those palm trees. This being Tuesday, I must mention the trees! Plockton, acclaimed as the prettiest village in the area, is famous for the palm trees which grow along its sheltered seafront. The Gulf Stream warms the climate here, allowing gardens to grow in glorious profusion at sea-level while up on the hills there is still nothing but last year’s brown heather.
Pretty little cottages curl around the bay, their colourful gardens on one side and, across the water on the other, craggy peaks frowning above the turrets of a Victorian castle. It is so picturesque that every painting of Plockton (and artists are drawn here like bees to buddleia) looks twee to my eyes.
My advice? Forget kitschy paintings and amateur holiday snaps like mine. They can only hint at how special this part of Scotland is. Put Wester Ross on your bucket list. Go soon.
You can see more about Kintail and the West Highlands in The Road to the Isles.
I have had a couple of conversations recently about writing. Specifically, eek, my writing. In the space of a few days, two friends who are both writers themselves (one an academic, the other a journalist) each separately gave me a gentle but searching interrogation about my plans for writing something developed from Dancing Beastie: something on paper, for publication, for sale. A book, in other words.
Since we all know that the world is full of wannabe-authors who think they have a book in them, I’m not going to enter into that discussion. Suffice to say that yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am one of them. One of those children who wrote and illustrated stories from the moment she could form letters. One of those teenagers who poured her thoughts into furtive diaries, longing to be understood and terrified of being discovered. One of those students who took pleasure in scribbling copious longhand notes and ideas, whose fingers developed callouses and dents from being wrapped around a pencil.
And in adulthood…well, as career and family have taken up my creative energy, the instinct to write has often been pushed into the background, but has never faded. All over the house, in bags and drawers, in backs of cupboards and under piles of paperwork, there are notebooks where I have found myself scrawling down something I needed to get on to paper. (It has occurred to me that some people might become writers in order to justify their compulsive blank-notebook-buying habit – but that’s another post.)
And so I must also confess that one of my reasons for starting a blog was to limber up my creative writing muscles, which I felt had not been properly exercised since finishing my doctoral thesis in the mid 1990s. The idea has always been that the blog would lead onto something more. Barely six months after I started Dancing Beastie, however, I had that brain injury, which knocked me sideways for a couple of years. And just as I felt I was starting to emerge from that, and was feeling positive about life’s possibilities, our family suffered two bereavements and all my emotional energy was directed towards their aftermath.
This year, though, I have no excuse. Hurray! So I was a bit dismayed to realise, when questioned by my two friends, that my grand plans for writing have been lying stagnant. A few searching questions were exactly what I needed to re-focus my attention. The most basic question – and perhaps the most important of all – was, what sort of thing do you want to write?
This is probably the first question which any of us who want to develop our writing should ask ourselves. How would you answer it? To help you to come up with an answer, think about the authors whose writing you have admired over the past few years; the ones whose style and content make you think, yes, that’s the kind of thing I would love to be able to write. When I did this myself, I realised that I could immediately access a sort of mental bookshelf of selected books which are my creative inspiration. They have clearly been collecting there without my paying them much conscious attention. Mine are (not exclusively) these:
Once you have collected a mental bookshelf, you can start to analyse what it is which attracts you to these books. On my own shelf, the books are:
2. concerning the natural world in various aspects
3. written with an exquisite sense of place, with evocative attention to detail
4. luminously aware of the connections between emotions and the physical world; between inner and outer landscapes. (One of my selected authors is an exception to this: Sara Wheeler consciously avoids any introspection, but I include her because she writes so well on place. Plus she is very funny.)
5. mostly in blue covers. I thought it was an odd coincidence, until I realised that it is a result of point 2: the blue is of flowers, snow and sky.
Thus in considering the authors who have inspired me, I find the answer to what I want to write about myself. More than that, I find that I am already trying to write about it: here, on this blog. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you were to discover the same.
Leafing through your mental bookshelf does not make you an author. But as an exercise in sharpening your focus, it’s a useful place to begin. Baby steps, dear reader, baby steps.
Are you in need of an escape today? I vividly remember how hard it was to get up on a perfect June morning in London, with the colours sparkling and the early sun already warm on my face and all the promise of a cloudless midsummer day ahead…and then to catch the crowded train to the office, to immure myself in stale air and strip lights for the next ten hours, ‘from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve’. If you are living that kind of life, I feel for you. This post is for you.
Here in the woods of Scotland, the bluebells have reached their climax. A violet haze of flowers washes the tree roots, easing the soul with peaceful beauty.
There are several wonderful bluebell woods in our area. According to our local newspaper, ’any woods with native bluebells are likely to be an ancient woodland, which covers just 1% of Scotland’s landmass and are some of the country’s most precious wildlife habitats.’ (The Courier, 5.6.13) This interests me as I had assumed that most of the estate’s bluebell woods were relatively recently planted, part of the landscaping of the castle’s policies which was carried out in the first half of the nineteenth century. In my favourite wood near the castle, for example, we can be fairly certain that the careful mixture of conifers and broadleaves, native and exotic species was planted by Sir William, the laird here in the 1830s to 1850s. As his plantings die off or are felled in winter storms, we are replacing them with oaks and beeches; so the character of the wood will subtly change over time. If a sea of native bluebells is indeed an indicator of ancient woodland, however, it suggests that there must have been beech and oak growing here long before Sir William’s day.
And yes, the wood is a wonderfully rich habitat for wildlife, where we have heard tawny owls, foxes and cuckoos and seen, to name only some of the bigger creatures, tree creepers, red squirrels, hedgehogs, pine martens, a polecat, greater spotted woodpeckers and of course the ubiquitous rabbits and roe deer. At this time of year, however, I am scarcely interested in the wildlife. It is the bluebells that entrance the senses.
You might enjoy the flowers in Blooming June: wild flower heaven
It’s that time of year again: summer half term for one child, Sports Day tomorrow for the other. Unlike in previous years, I have even managed to get my act together and volunteer to do something useful at Sports Day. So we are busy busy this week and blogging must wait.
Ah, but last weekend. Last weekend we did something I try not to do: took younger child out of school, so that we could have a long weekend away. Well, his elder brother would have been kicking his heels at home all week otherwise, and I had a sudden, urgent need to get over to the West Highlands for some coastal living. So off we went to Wester Ross and some of the most ridiculously beautiful parts of Scotland, with lochs, islands, mountains, palm trees (!) and a Monday morning exploring that castle, of ‘Highlander’ and James Bond fame. It was bliss. I’ll tell you more next week.
You can find that castle in winter light in The Road to the Isles.
In a secret spot near the river, where two paths meet, grows a patch of wild lily of the valley. Every May I make a little pilgrimage there to collect a posy of what is, to me, the essence of May.
Last year I misjudged the timing. Spring came so early that the lilies flowered in April, and I never saw them. This year, spring has come so late that they are only just beginning to flower as June approaches.
You can smell them before you see them. That sweet, creamy, green scent is like no other: it smells as if it would turn to rich lather on your cheeks. Then you make out the flowers nodding their heads under the leaves; little white bells with frilly hems, like a row of cotton bloomers on a washing line.
Failing the ability to share the scent with you through the internet, I can at least share a couple of pictures of the posy I picked. I won’t collect any more: a single small and treasured handful of wild lily of the valley is one of the greatest treats of the season.
The oak tree stands
noble on the hill even in
cherry blossom time
The cultivated cherries finished blossoming a week or two ago now. Nevertheless, the countryside is decked in white: the geans or wild cherry are in full bloom at last. Oak and ash have come into leaf together, signifying who knows what for the weather this summer.
You might also enjoy What colour is your May? which is about cherry blossom but also about a medieval chapel, bagpiping, and the family’s other castle.