Signs of spring
Yesterday was a dreich, damp day here. Morning fog barely dissolved into low-hanging mist and fine drizzle, shrouding the hills and beading every branch with drops of water. For once, however, this ‘fine soft weather’ (as drenching rain is called in the West Highlands) seemed not melancholy to me, but promising. It really did feel ‘soft’: there was no icy edge to it for the first time in several months. It smelled of spring.
Only last weekend we were up in the Cairngorms, making the most of the children’s half-term with a couple of days of mucking about in the snow. We took the funicular railway up Cairn Gorm, squeezed in with all the snowboarders and skiers. At the top, we discovered that there was a white-out and a wind-chill of -18 Celsius.
We had the viewing platform of the top station to ourselves, oddly enough.
We had a lot of fun, though, and were lucky to have got up there (and down again) at all. That night a storm swept in, burying the top station and the funicular under massive drifts and effectively shutting down the mountain. Driving home on Saturday, we discovered that the snow had also fallen widely across the rest of our route, making the always empty landscape of this area look forbiddingly bleak.
And waiting for us at home was a fresh covering of snow. We needn’t have gone north in search of the white stuff: it had been coming to land on our doorstep! On average, I’d say we’ve been having a snowfall a week for the past month or more. Unlike the pre-Christmas falls, though, this is vanishing like the proverbial snow off a dyke (that’s dyke as in stone wall, in case you were wondering). By Sunday morning, the white fields were again green, and this week the temperature has risen steadily to a high of 9 degrees C this morning, probably the warmest day since early November. Today the last pockets of snow in the hollows are shrinking before my eyes. It has lain in places for exactly three months (we had our first big dump of snow on November 24th, early for here), but I don’t think it will hang about much longer.
This thaw is only one sign of the changing season. The first one, for me, was not visual but aural. Three days after Valentine’s Day, I heard a piercing whistle over the castle rooftops: the oyster catchers have returned. They always come back here to breed around Valentine’s Day, and that first shriek as they wheel over the grounds never fails to thrill the heart. More than anything else, it signifies for me the coming of spring. More subtle over the past week has been the gradual increase in other birdsong. In a moment of stillness a few days ago, I became aware of a bird singing – not just chirping, but singing – outside the kitchen window. It sounded like the first tentative notes of May’s dawn chorus, heard drowsily before first light, except that this was a mid-afternoon in February. It was, I suppose, the first tentative notes of the chorus of the year. On every walk now, I am aware of the voices of birds punctuating the woods. They are still sparse enough to be picked out individually: it’s not yet the flood of sound of true spring. But this liquid grace is such a blessing, after the months of silence but for the squabbling of crows and the rusty machinery clatter of pheasants.
When I was in Primary Three – so about seven years old – I remember doing a little school project called ‘Signs of Spring’. I loved drawing and I remember carefully colouring in a picture of a fieldfare and finding out about the black buds on the ash trees. I caused some amusement to my teacher, however, by consistently writing about ‘Sighns‘ of spring. Well, the last of my sighns today is the advent of snowdrops to the policies at Castle Beastie. They are only beginning to flower, but there are more blooming every day.
Soon this bank will be thick with their white drifts.
Long snowy winters in Scotland have been rare enough, in recent years, for me to have relished almost every minute of the past two winters of heavy snowfall and extreme cold. But even I am ready to say goodbye to the snow, and to welcome the snowdrops. Along with all the other sighns of spring.
P.S. Many thanks to those who dropped in on Dancing Beastie through its being ‘Freshly Pressed’ on Tuesday. Things are calming down a little now after that flurry of excitement, but I hope that some of you will choose to visit again!