Helm Winds, Gorse and Gold
Spring begins here when the winds shift to come out of the north east. If you are a farmer, you call these drying winds and you look hopefully to the fields and check the ratio of green grass to mud. How soon can we put cattle out on that grass and how long will the hay last and will the two meet in a happy middle ground. The old names for these winds, however, is "helm winds" because the Vikings sailed out of Norway for the new season of exploration and acquisition when these winds could fill their sails.
The first year I was here, we had no summer. In June it was so cold that I wore my long underwear and my heavy parka for the massed pipe bands festival. My brother and sister in law came to visit me in my new home and probably were so frozen that they will never return. This year has been, unless it has one more trick up its sleeve, the year without a winter. We left for the worst part of the long dark, but all reports have been that there has been no hard frost. There has been no snow. As happy as I am to have missed that, it worries me. I like the seasons. I am a midwesterner and Christmas spent in Florida or New Zealand is not really Christmas. I like raking leaves --well, a few leaves at any rate. I am prepared to mark the seasons with different plants or other markers, but I am not prepared to abandon them altogether.
Morris told me about the helm winds as we drove south to Inverness. Gorse can always be found somewhere with at least one outrageously yellow blossom on it no matter what the weather, but along the roads here and much more down south, the gorse is ready to bloom in its massed chorus spring song. And it is not yet February. I have heard birds in the garden--the first pioneers coming out of their safe havens or returning from faraway places--and it is not yet February.
Today the winds are blowing harder, but the first signs of the earth soaking up the longer sun are making themselves apparent all around us. The hills, which had seemed to shrink in on themselves as they huddled against the cold, are now stretching out to embrace the sun. The sere browns of the dried bracken and heather are warming into purple tones, and the heather, mere grey sticks in the winter, now spreads like close-cropped velvet across the shoulders of the hills. Clustered around the foot of the hills, the yellow buds of the gorse wait impatiently for their cue to burst forth.
On the way home last night, we took the single-track road the last part of the way home. That is the most direct route by which to arrive at our local pub, where they were having some country dancing. A single track road in the north in this time of year means we saw many sheep, a few deer, one unidentified scurrying creature running acros the road, and two cars and a pick up truck as we traveled through the back country. As the sun set slowly, the broad horizons so characteristic of the highlands were compressed into silhouetted mountains and a ribbon-road curving along the silvered river. The flat light of the half moon and sleepy sun made the fast running stream seem to stand still. The road winds past a gold rush that temporarily put Kildonan on the map. You can still pan for gold at Baille an Or with about as much success as any other form of gambling.
Shortly after passing Kildonan we passed through Forsinard--a train station and visitor center mark the beginning of peatlands now called flow country for the secret reviers that wind through it. It is a treasure house of birds and creatures that like wet, cold, organic-rich wide open spaces. There were two cars and one light in front of the Forsinard Hotel. It is a quiet time of year up here, but fishermen will be coming in March. Some come up here faithfully year after year for decades. The right to fishing spots--called beats--is managed carefully.
Around the last bend of the road we catch the lights of the parking lot of the Halladale Inn and it looks like a city after the dark road. The fire was on, Ian and his wife were there, and a handful of people collected from the surrounding area settled in to learn how to dance Bernardo's waltz, a progressive gay gordon, and a Circassian circle, and then back out into the dark.