Fogbow at low tide

I proudly tweeted yesterday a picture of a fogbow and people were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d re-post it here for the non-Twitterers who read my stuff.

Here it is, taken at ten to three and just less than half an hour ahead of low tide. I’ve condensed the picture slightly by removing some unnecessary foreground scrubland and compensated by removing some area above the fogbow – with the effect of emphasising it better (and also using the fence better as a pointer). Otherwise, no other editing!

This was the culmination of several days of foggy, misty weather held tight us over locally by the relative lack of wind – today the wind is a little stronger and has shifted everything out. Or, rather, up – it remains overcast, with occasional warm glimpses of shadow.

A fogbow is formed like a rainbow, with the sun interacting with water droplets in the air which, in fog, are much smaller than when falling as rain. This small size means that, when sunlight is defracted, the colours are leached out leaving only a reddish tinge to the outer edge of the ‘bow and a bluish tinge to the inner one. The Met Office website inevitably explains it a lot better than me.

Rainbows we see a lot out here, but fogbows are a little rarer – this was actually the first I’m conscious of seeing in the wild. When they do appear, there is quite a bit of interest in them – the Western Isles Weather website has a collection of brilliant photos. Note in particular the one by Mike at An Solas Oir, which is more or less the same one as mine but from the other side, looking towards the sun whereas the sun is directly behind me in this photo.

As with the Aurora, even cheap cameras like mine can improve the image significantly compared to what the human eye sees. In real life, this wasn’t as obvious as in the photo: my eye was caught by something at first glance and it was only when looking harder (and slightly away) did the shape come together out of the fog and take on a bit of solidity. A few minutes later and the sun had dispelled some of the fog, creating stronger sunlight, a hint of blue sky above and, thus, the opportunity for a photo. Even then, it was impossible to see an image on the camera’s LCD screen – it was somewhat ‘point and hope’, lining up just enough of the headland on the left to ensure some sort of ‘fit’. And – fingers crossed!

Elsewhere, there are signs of spring and of hope, not least with the timetable to Scotland, and these islands, emerging from lockdown becoming a little clearer; and, with no new cases anywhere now for ten days, and the vaccination programme extended now to those aged 40+ likely taking us, on the basis of average age, to a figure of over half the population having at least one jab, a collective sigh of relief, a release of long-held breath, is beginning to become evident. Nature, ever good at supplying symbols – or perhaps it’s just us who are ever good at re-interpreting them – supplied us with the first open daffodil today; the rest remain a breath of spring – but they’re coming. Prospective gale force winds or not.

Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

A birthday poem (not by me)

Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.

After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:

Uist

There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
sand slips.
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.

No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.

The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:

On line 16, the machair is the Gàidhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.

The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.

The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:

Happy Birthday, Peter!

Dennis catapults in

Still stormy here, with winds in the high 40s/low 50s, although this is a little lower than the 60+ winds of yesterday and we haven’t had the rain that has flooded the south of England, Yorkshire and central Cardiff (amongst other places). In Uist, it’s been mostly showery, albeit that the showers are torrential, wintry and horizontal as another storm front sweeps across, eradicating a moment’s blue sky and sunshine with yet another overcast prelude to yet another incoming shower.

We have had a succession of very high tides which, allied to the largely southerly winds that Dennis brought yesterday, saw incoming breakers having their tops flung into reverse, plumes of spray being thrown backwards. But, amidst the muddy browns of the near side, reflecting the seaweeds being roiled up by the waters, the aquamarine of the water towards the far shore and the white, marram-topped sand dunes of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay, backed by white-painted cottages, in moments of sunshine underneath a slate grey sky, reflect the complexity of the South Uist colour palette.

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IMG_5393 (2)At least there was no further ingress of seaweed across the shore road, as also happened last week, for at least the second time this year and only the fourth (IIRC) in my time here.

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2020 has been windy, with few and brief days of respite. This has made it much more difficult for birds to feed and yesterday, as the tide was forced by time to concede its battering of the shoreline and to dismantle its seaweed trebuchet, a mixed flock of ringed plovers, sanderling, greenshank and oystercatchers, and a few gulls, desperately resumed their foraging of their own 100cm² portion of the retreating waterline. There is, it seem, enough room for all, increasingly so as the tide retreats further, and the small nature of the morsels offered up made squabbling a pointless waste of energy.

However, a different side to this sort of frenzy smacked the office window this morning in the shape of a small bird with a force violence suggestive of a much bigger bird and which made me think of one of of our gang of starlings. There on the ground, upside down and apparently quite dead, mottled brown and buff underside in full vulnerable show, was a meadow pipit; and then, within seconds, the reason for the force of the smack appeared in the shape of a female hen harrier, which wheeled 180º around where its prey had fallen, tail fanned, banded alternatively light brown and cream and almost translucent in the sunshine, as it alighted on the pipit where it stayed a few moments settling itself and assessing the nature of any threat in the surroundings before rising up into the air and quickly out of sight, talons full. Only one in ten strikes are successful – and a strike is only half the battle as the right to the prey must then be preserved against all comers. At least this one was painless, on the one account, and non-wasteful on the other, although the shower which swept the landscape just a moments later would have made the plucking a damp occasion.

An extendedly bleak midwinter, then – though the fat, energetic shoots of daffodils emerging into and in spite of the strength of the storm are signs enough of the resilience and the vitality of all things. And, likewise, we will rise again.

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Brendan: a photographic footnote

A couple of photos taken this morning – at about 1025 – from the garden steps into respectively the north-east and south-east corners of the garden. These show, firstly, that either yesterday evening’s high tide (c. 2120) or this morning’s (c. 0930) brought some seaweed debris into the furthermost corner of the garden, either as a result of overlapping sea water or as a result of being ejected from the sea by strong waves driven by the wind to crash on the shore; and, secondly, showing that there is also a small amount of seaweed debris washed right across the shore road.

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The winds were gusting above 60mph right through the night until 0700, and high 50s thereafter, but they were coming from the south-west so ought not to have been responsible for bringing seaweed debris this far; it’s more likely therefore to have been the high tide. We can see that there is still plenty of debris floating around in what is a sluggish and heavy-moving sea; and, yes, that is one of our gang of starlings standing centre left perusing the potential future lunch opportunities arising from the new situation.

IMG_4997-800x600The water level is very high, given that the rock in the sea left of centre is virtually submerged. Normally the shore line here follows the line of the rocks at centre right, and curving into roughly the lower horizontal third of the photo (and above the fence line); currently it’s blurred by the amount of debris. Seaweed debris on the shore is common, especially when the sea has been churned up by strong winds; above the shore, much less so and usually only after the sorts of extremes we had yesterday. And pretty rarely as much as this.

We still have plenty of height to the house above this level, but any sign of encroachment by the sea above the shoreline is clearly a serious matter.

Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.

Late September sunset

Just time left in September to drop in with a new sunset picture, taken tonight some fifteen minutes after sunset which tonight was at 1908.

September sunset

Here, we’re looking over the croft land neighbouring where we live and, given the time of year, more or less due west, instead of the north-west which marked sunset at the height of summer, and with few sheep still left around Ardivachar after the sales of the last few weeks. With a fairly stiff easterly/north-easterly breeze, and a forecast temperature dropping below ten degrees, it’ll feel about half that overnight and, with the generally clear skies, sunny in the daytime, there’s even a few reports of potential ground frosts across the highlands and islands.

It’s enough to turn a few thoughts towards warmer climes!

Sunset palette – midsummer 2019

A band of cirrus and (alto)stratus (I think…) clouds stretched across the sky at sunset last night on a calm, still evening, giving an astonishing colour palette at sunset. Out of the (ahem) 43 pictures I took, a number somewhat driven by Saturday night mojitos but which can, mostly, be justified in the calm of Sunday morning, here’s a selection of eight. Hope you enjoy them!

First, taken just before 9pm, the clouds in question with the photo just catching the sun’s flare at the left hand edge. It had been a warm and mostly sunny day, giving the chance for an al fresco dinner (which usually implies Greek salad and an accompanying drop or two of ouzo):

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At about ten past ten, well into in the golden hour, but with the clouds at the top of the picture providing a slate grey contrast to the sun. The camera lens has bent these clouds slighly upwards left to right – the actual position was closer to the horizontal than these suggest:

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Next, zooming slightly in on golden seas and highlighting a few sunset worshippers among the local population of sheep:

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At sunset, with the the position of the sun at 325º on the compass, and the time on the clock: 2232:

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About ten minutes later and zooming in, a little slightly further westwards than the position of the sun at sunset, to enhance the intensity of the orange colours:

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At ten past eleven, with the sky darkening and the colours beginning to shift to blues and greys:

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Looking north-east, with the red light from the Dark Island turbine prominent, now just after midnight and with plenty of light still left in the sky, and with the soft greys of the clouds leaving plenty of gaps for midnight blues (not that one – Ed):

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And finally, a panorama of the bay from a little earlier in the evening (precisely at sunset), looking north to east (horizon line slightly bent at the north, left hand, edge) with pink reflections both in the clouds and in the water:Kilaulay sunset reflection 3

Truly lucky to live in such a beautiful place – and with evenings such as these providing ample compensation for the days (and nights) when it can get a bit rough out there.